Opioids are medications that relieve pain. When used properly, they can help. But when abused, they can cause addiction, overdose and death. Canadians are the world's second largest per capita consumer of prescription opioids after Americans.
Learn about opioids, their side effects and how to avoid abuse.
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What are opioids?
Opioids are medicines generally used to manage pain. They relieve pain by acting on specific nerve cells of the spinal cord and brain. Youth may have a misperception that prescription drugs are less dangerous when abused than illicit drugs because they are prescribed by a doctor.
One of the most important uses of opioids is to relieve pain, but they are also used to:
- control moderate to severe cough,
- control diarrhea, and
- treat addiction to other opioids.
Opioids relieve pain by acting on specific nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain.
Examples of opioids include:
Opioids can be short-acting (released quickly) or long-acting (released slowly). The type of opioid and the dose prescribed is based on the type, severity and location of pain. The type and dose prescribed may also be different for each patient.
Opioids come in many forms, such as:
- liquids for injection
- nose sprays
- skin patches
The strength of the opioid in these medications varies greatly, and most are available by prescription only.
What are the side effects of using opioids?
There are many dangerous and unpredictable effects associated with abusing prescription drugs including addiction, overdose and death.
Like other medications, opioids may have negative effects, even when used as directed. The short-term effects of using opioids may include:
- nausea and vomiting,
- headaches, dizziness and confusion,
- difficulty breathing,
- euphoria (feeling high), and
- itching and sweating.
Long-term use of opioids can lead to:
- increased tolerance to the drug, so that more drug is needed to produce the same pain relieving effect,
- dependence, and
- withdrawal symptoms.
Prescription opioids can be just as dangerous as illegal opioid drugs such as heroin. Learn more about prescription drug abuse.
Opioid dependence and withdrawal
People who take opioids for long periods risk becoming dependent. This is because the body gets used to a regular supply of the drug. If the drug is stopped (withdrawn), or the dose lowered, the body experiences withdrawal symptoms.
Physical withdrawal effects may include:
- body aches
- nausea and stomach pain
The severity of withdrawal and how long it lasts depend on:
- which opioid was used or abused;
- how much was taken; and
- how long the drug was used or abused.
Withdrawal symptoms usually last about a week. But some symptoms may continue for longer. These may include anxiety, insomnia and drug cravings. These symptoms can be minimized if patients consult their health care professional about a schedule to reduce doses gradually when it is time to reduce or end the use of opioid pain medications. Opioid withdrawal is rarely life-threatening.
What are the risks of opioid abuse?
There are many dangerous and unpredictable effects associated with abusing prescription drugs including addiction, overdose and death. Opioids are known to be abused because they can produce euphoria (feeling high). Using opioids for this reason rather than to treat pain as prescribed can be very dangerous.
Opioid drugs can be especially dangerous when taken in large amounts or in combination with alcohol or sedatives.
Signs of overdose include:
- slow or weak breathing,
- dizziness, confusion, drowsiness,
- cold and clammy skin,
- pinpoint (very small) pupils, and
- collapse and coma.
An accidental overdose may also occur if opioids are taken improperly. For example, time-release tablets are meant to be swallowed whole. Crushing or breaking these pills before taking them can lead to overdose because too much of the opioid is released all at once.
A person is addicted when a drug becomes the focus of their thoughts, feelings and activities. They crave the drug and continue using it despite the harmful effects it is causing.
Opioid addiction is accompanied by important changes in the brain and body that can make it very difficult to stop using.
Addiction treatment usually includes a combination of:
- addiction counselling and support,
- detoxification (managing withdrawal), and
Treatment is most effective when all three elements are combined.
What are other health risks of abusing opioids?
Some people inject the drug with a needle to make an opioid high stronger. Sharing needles with others carries a high risk of being infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or hepatitis C. Non-drug substances in tablets or capsules can permanently harm veins and organs if they are dissolved for use by injection.
If women use opioids regularly during pregnancy, this increases their risk of premature delivery. The child may also be born with life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.
Youth are particularly vulnerable to abusing opioids. The abuse of prescription drugs has harmful effects on teens' health.
How can you help prevent opioid abuse?
You can prevent the possibility of opioid abuse and addiction by following these guidelines.
Use your medication properly
- Ask your health care provider about your medication, especially if you are unsure about its effects.
- Make sure your health care provider is aware of all the medications you take, including over-the-counter drugs to avoid any harmful drug interactions.
- Make sure your health care provider is aware if you have a history of alcohol or drug abuse.
- Use all medications exactly as directed. This includes taking the right dose at the right time, and not changing your dose or discontinuing use without consulting with your doctor. Avoid crushing your pills, or cutting them open. Crushing or cutting pills can lead to a rapid release of medication, which can cause a fatal overdose.
Keep your medication safe to help prevent abuse by others
- Store opioid medications in a safe place, out of the reach of children and teenagers. Keep track of the amount remaining in the package.
- Do not share your medication with anyone else. Not only is this illegal, but may also cause serious harm or death to the other person.
- Return unused medication to the pharmacy for safe disposal. This prevents any possibility of illegal use. It also protects the environment from contamination.
Are you struggling with drug abuse? Is someone you care about having a problem?
Help is available, whether you need it for yourself, a friend, or a family member.
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