Opioid Side Effects

When you have a headache or lower back pain, your first source of pain relief is usually an over-the-counter aspirin or ibuprofen. If the pain is severe, your doctor may prescribe something stronger, such as a prescription opioid. Opioids are types of narcotic pain medications that are effective at treating severe pain, but they can have serious side effects if you don’t use them as directed. Some of the most common opioids include OxyContin and Vicodin.

If you are concerned that you or someone close to you is not taking their opioid medication correctly, there are signs to watch for. In this post, we will talk about the most common side effects of opioid use, what to be on the lookout for and how to address a potential problem. To learn more about opioids and their effects, read our earlier post “5 Facts About Opiates”.

How Opioids Work

In order to understand why opioids are dangerous when used incorrectly, you must first understand how the medication works. Opioid drugs bind to the opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord and other parts of the body. The purpose is to lower the pain messages that are being sent to the brain. Because fewer messages are being sent, less pain is felt.

While effective, opioids do come with risks and can be habit forming. That’s why they require a prescription from your doctor. Your doctor will prescribe the appropriate dose for your pain. Depending on your pain, the reasons for the pain and your doctor, you may be instructed to take the pain medication every 4-6 hours or only as needed.

As long as the medication is taken as directed, it is usually safe. The most common side effects include constipation, drowsiness and nausea or vomiting.

When Opioids Become Habit Forming

If you take opioid pain medication for a while, you may find that you need more and more of the drug to achieve the same relief. This means that you are building tolerance to the drug. Tolerance can happen even if you are taking the medication as prescribed.

If you continue taking the opioid, you can become physically dependent on it. Basically, your body becomes so accustomed to the medication that it will go through withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking it. Tolerance and physical dependency are not the same as addiction. Addiction is a disease characterized by compulsive use of the drug. However, tolerance and physical dependency are precursors to addiction.

People can – and do – develop addictions to opioid medications. They will compulsively seek out pain medication to support their habit. If you fear that you or your loved one will cross over into this territory and become physically and mentally dependent on opioids, there are signs to be aware of. Usually, your gut is right, but you would never want to wrongfully accuse someone of a drug problem.

Breaking Down the Top Opioid Side Effects

The most common side effects of opioids are constipation, confusion and drowsiness. If you experience these effects while taking the drug, it’s important to talk to your doctor about the dosage. It’s possible that it’s too high, and a lower dose will provide you with necessary pain relief while reducing the side effects of opioids.

Let’s break down a few more opioid side effects to be aware of that may indicate a greater problem.

  • Nausea and vomiting. Opioids stimulate opioid receptors that are in the gastrointestinal tract and the part of the brain that is responsible for vomiting. Frequent vomiting is a sign that you’re taking too much of the drug.

  • Sedation. It’s common for opioids to cause severe drowsiness and sedation. People taking the medication are advised not to drive or operate heavy machinery for this reason. Extreme or persistent drowsiness is a sign that the dose is too high.

  • Skin changes. Some people get flushing or cooling of the skin. There is also the possibility of developing an allergic rash called urticaria.

  • Misosis. Small, constricted pupils indicate that a person is being affected by opioids.

  • Respiratory suppression. Opioid medications adversely affect respiratory function. However, this is most common when opioids are taken at large doses. Still, it’s important to realize that opioids naturally suppress breathing and should not be combined with other depressants such as alcohol.

  • Psychological effects. Euphoria is common when taking opioids, and some people experience delirium or hallucinations. Memory loss and headache are also common as the drug starts to wear off.  

  • Heart rate changes. It’s possible that your heart rate may increase or decrease because of the medication. Each person responds differently.

  • Dependence and abuse. Dependency and abuse are possible with long-term opioid use. Opioids are habit forming, and the longer they are used, the more likely you are to become dependent on them.

In the next section, we will focus more on opioids side effects that may indicate an unhealthy relationship with the drug.

Signs of Opiate Abuse

Side effects are common with any drug, but what if you are concerned that you are becoming dependent on opioids – or worse yet – addicted? Remember, dependency is a side effect of the drug. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, it’s possible that this symptom is present.

Below are the signs of a potential addiction to opiates.

  • Noticeable euphoria or elation

  • Extreme drowsiness or sedation

  • Constricted pupils

  • Mental confusion

  • Slowed breathing

  • Constipation

  • Nodding off

  • Shifting moods

  • Social withdrawal or isolation

  • Financial problems

  • Doctor shopping

The above signs are important to be aware of because they indicate that the opioids are becoming a problem. Either the dose is too high or you are becoming physically and mentally dependent on them. Knowing that opioids are habit forming and have severe consequences, it’s important to speak with your doctor immediately.

Longer Term Opioid Side Effects

Many times, the only side effects listed are short-term ones. However, there are long-term effects that can impact a person, too. People who continue to use and abuse opiates are at risk for the following symptoms:

  • Weakened immune system

  • Gastric problems

  • Significant respiratory depression

  • Mental and emotional distress

  • Addiction

Link Between Prescription Opioids and Heroin

Sometimes people underestimate the severity of becoming dependent on opioids. They believe that if the doctor prescribed them, they must be safe. While opioids do have their place in medicine and can be an effective treatment for some people, they are not without risk. If you are becoming obsessive with opioids and noticing more opioid side effects, it’s likely that you are dependent on them and possibly even addicted.

Addiction is a progressive disease. This means that it will continue to get worse if it’s not treated. And, if you abruptly stop taking the pills, you will probably experience withdrawal symptoms. These effects can be so powerful that they may lead you to do things you wouldn’t normally do. 

Prescription drugs can be gateway drugs to heroin. People that are addicted to pain pills sometimes move onto heroin. It may seem like a big jump, but heroin is an opioid and it produces similar effects as medications like Vicodin or OxyContin. It’s also cheaper and sometimes easier to get. In order to stop withdrawal symptoms and feed the habit, a person who wouldn’t normally think of using heroin can be brought to this point.

When It’s Time to Get Help

So when is it time to seek prescription drug treatment? Anytime that you think opioids are becoming a problem. You don’t have to wait for the problem to get out of control; you can seek treatment if you or a loved one is facing dependency. It’s usually easier to treat a problem at this level rather than a full-blown addiction to heroin.

Thanks to day programs and outpatient programs, it’s possible to get professional support and guidance without having to go into a treatment program for a month or longer. Outpatient programs are designed to be flexible and convenient, and they can be extremely effective for people who have already sought treatment for a drug addiction.

Managing Withdrawal Symptoms

Of course, you can’t go directly from opioid use to treatment. Withdrawal symptoms are powerful and will make it difficult to get help unless they are addressed first. Withdrawal from opioids can be very hard and dangerous, so it’s not recommended to do it alone. Talk to your healthcare provider about the opioids side effects you are experiencing and which course of treatment is right for you.

A rehab facility that offers detox is probably going to be your best option. These facilities are equipped to deal with the common side effects of opioids and withdrawal symptoms. While none of the side effects can be erased, rehabilitation centers have a wide variety of treatments to manage these negative symptoms. This includes conventional medicine such as buprenorphine and clonidine, as well as naturopathic therapies like massage therapy, acupuncture and infrared sauna.

Is Opioid Therapy Ever Safe?

Chronic pain is one of the most common medical conditions in the United States, and it can be extremely difficult to manage and live a normal life. Opioid medications can be an effective means of treatment for these individuals. However, opioids have a long list of side effects and can be addictive. Therefore, they should only be considered under strict circumstances, such as if all other nonopioid therapy has failed, the dosage is low and a single physician and pharmacy are used.

If you or someone you love is struggling with opioid addiction, call The River Source today. We have been successful in treating opiate addictions. With our wide range of treatments, we can offer a full recovery that includes detox, counseling and continuing care.