Prescription Opioid (Painkiller) Addiction, Side Effects & Statistics

Prescription opioids, also known as prescription painkillers, are a class of drugs that are derived from the opium poppy plant. All opioids are Central Nervous System (CNS) depressants, meaning they slow automatic processes like breathing and brain activity and result in a calm and drowsy state. The primary desired effect of prescription opioid use is pain relief. The “high,” or feeling of euphoria that accompanies certain doses of opioids, has contributed to the misuse of these drugs and resulted in countless overdoses and deaths.

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Abuse Of Prescription Opioids (Painkillers)

An opioid overdose occurs when side effects escalate to fatal levels. Specifically, fatal opioid overdose is usually caused by a person becoming unable to breathe completely as a result of opioids slowing down the respiratory system. This can lead to a lack of oxygen and death. Death from opioid overdose can be immediate, but it generally takes longer; it may even take up to several hours. It is possible to overcome an opioid overdose if someone is available to immediately call 911 or administer Narcan and possibly CPR. Even when an overdose is not fatal, it can cause debilitating organ system injury.

painkillers and addiction

Harmful Side Effects Of Prescription Opioids

Typically, prescription opioids are administered orally with a pill, sublingually under the tongue, or intravenously with a needle. When opioids enter the body, they move through the bloodstream to the brain and spinal cord where they bind to active opioid receptors on cells. By attaching to these receptors, opioids block pain signals and release dopamine. This kind of chemical interaction is highly addictive, and people may become dependent on opioids to feel good or even normal.

Potential side effects of prescription opioid abuse or addiction include:

  • Drowsiness or reduced consciousness
  • Confusion
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dry mouth
  • Constipation
  • Slowed breathing
  • Itching or sweating
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Lowered testosterone (resulting in lowered sex drive, energy, and strength)

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, signs of drug dependence include:

  • Tolerance: People with this issue must take more and more of a drug in order to feel the effects that once came with smaller doses.
  • Withdrawal: When people attempt to stop taking the drug, they feel physically or mentally ill.
  • Loss of control: An inability to control when the drug use happens or how much a person takes characterizes a loss of control.
  • Inability to stop using: As much as a person like this might want to quit or cut back, it’s impossible to do so.
  • Continued use despite negative consequences: Arrests, medical crises, or other terrible life events can’t deter the use.
  • Intense focus: For someone like this, nothing is as important as the drug. Family, friends, pets, careers, and hobbies all pale in importance.

How To Avoid Prescription Opioid Overdose

  • Take medicine only if it has been prescribed to you by your doctor.
  • Do not take more medicine than prescribed or take medicine more often than instructed.
  • Call a doctor if your pain gets worse.
  • Never mix prescription opioids with alcohol, Sleeping Pills, or any prescribed controlled substance or illicit substance.
  • Store your medicine in a safe place where children and pets cannot reach it.
  • Learn the signs of an overdose and how to use Naloxone (or Narcan) to keep an overdose from becoming fatal.
  • Teach your family and friends how to respond to an overdose.
  • Dispose of unused medication properly.

Frequently Asked Questions: Painkiller Addiction

Anyone taking a prescription for opioids is at risk of developing a tolerance to their medication. The body becomes used to opioid medication in a relatively short amount of time. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the risk of developing an opioid dependency greatly increases after 5 days of normal use.

The most addictive prescription opiods are:
  • Morphine: Doctors use this drug to treat pain, but it is also one of the most addictive painkillers.
  • Dilaudid: This painkiller is a Schedule II drug.
  • Vicodin: Vicodin is a blend of acetaminophen and hydrocodone.
  • Fentanyl: This is one of the most dangerous painkillers in the world and is up to 100x stronger than heroin.

Prescription Opioid Dependency Vs. Addiction

Physical dependence on opioids is characterized by the onset of symptoms of withdrawal when the use of the substance is stopped. While dependence is one part of addiction, opioid addiction and abuse also encompass the inability to quit usage despite negative consequences as well as tolerance and withdrawal.

Not everyone who takes prescription painkillers will develop an addiction. Over one-third of adults in the US took opioid medication in 2015, and 12 million did so without approval from a doctor. As prescription drug monitoring programs take effect across the country, fewer pills are being abused or sold illegally on the streets. Prescription opioid addicts are having to turn to more easily obtained and illegal alternatives in order to replace the pills they can no longer acquire. Because of this, Heroin and illicitly manufactured Fentanyl (counterfeited to look like prescription pills) have flooded neighborhoods nationwide, causing increases in overdoses and deaths at a time when prescription opioid deaths had leveled off.

Common Prescription Opioids

Type Brand Names Description
Codeine A comparatively weak opioid is most often prescribed when Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen don’t work. However, there is still a high addiction potential.
Hydrocodone Vicodin®, Norco®, Lortab® A more powerful form of Codeine often mixed with Acetaminophen. It is used to treat moderate to severe acute and chronic pain.
Oxycodone OxyContin®, Percocet® A long-acting, strong opioid for moderate to high pain relief that lasts longer periods of time.
Morphine Roxanol®, Avinza® A strong opioid that typically comes in pill and injectable forms.
Meperidine Demerol® Similar to Morphine, Demerol is often used prior to surgery as Anesthesia or during childbirth, as well as for moderate to severe acute or chronic pain.
Hydromorphone Dilaudid®, Exalgo® A powerful semi-Synthetic Painkiller. Hydromorphone is to Morphine as Hydrocodone is to Codeine.
Fentanyl Actiq®, Duragesic® A surgical, fully Synthetic Anesthetic is up to 100 times stronger than Morphine (counterfeit versions are also manufactured illegally).
Methadone Dolophine®, Methadose® Used to treat withdrawal symptoms of opioid addiction and to treat severe chronic pain.
Buprenorphine Subutex®, Suboxone® (with Naloxone) Alternative to Methadone in addiction treatment produces less euphoria and physical dependence. Buprenorphine is also used to treat acute and chronic pain.

Treatment And Recovery

Treatment for an opioid addiction typically starts with medically-assisted detox in order to combat uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms such as body aches, vomiting, and diarrhea; it’s also important to keep the patient safe from potentially fatal complications such as seizures. There are also a variety of evidence-based therapies and addiction treatment medications provided in rehab that can improve the patient’s comfort and increase the chances of a successful recovery. Buprenorphine and Methadone, two types of prescription opioids, may be prescribed to ease withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings. This is known as medication-assisted therapy (MAT). Whether individuals attend inpatient drug rehab or outpatient rehab, cognitive behavioral therapy can be beneficial in identifying and working through underlying issues and learning healthy coping skills.

Find Help Related to Painkiller Addiction

If you or a loved one are struggling with an addiction to prescription painkillers, you still deserve to live a life where you feel emotionally safe. Drug rehab can help you heal the mental, emotional, and spiritual wounds of addiction and create a life that feels fulfilling. Contact our recovery centers today for a free, confidential consultation.

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George Kocher

George Kocher

George is a content creator with 7 years of experience working with substance use disorder patients. He has held positions as an admissions director, marketing manager, and Chief Marketing Officer within chemical dependency.

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