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Opioid use has a long history throughout the world, but in recent years, the increase in prescribing these drugs for pain and other medical concerns has led to an epidemic of opioid addiction and overdoses. Opioids are derived from the opium poppy plant, with some drugs using natural plant extracts and others using synthetic versions. The primary purpose of opioids is to manage both acute and chronic pain, but they might also be prescribed for persistent coughing or diarrhea.


Opioids have been used for centuries for both medicinal and recreational purposes. As early as the 16th century, opium was mixed into an alcoholic solution and used as a painkiller. During the Civil War in the U.S., the opioid morphine was widely used for pain, resulting in numerous addiction problems among soldiers. Codeine was introduced in the 19th century, and its less potent effects quickly became a choice in suppressing coughs.

By the final decade of the 20th century, new opioids like Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet were introduced to the market, giving physicians more choices in painkillers they could prescribe for their patients suffering acute or chronic pain. Unfortunately, the increase in options has also led to a rise in use and subsequent abuse and addiction. Today, more than 115 people in the United States die from opioid overdoses daily.

Types of Opioids

Both prescription opioids and street drugs have been linked to an increasing number of addictions and overdoses in recent years. These substances can be particularly problematic for professionals in the health industry, due to their powerful effects and relatively easy access. The most common types of prescription opioids include:

  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
  • Morphine (Kadian, Avinza)
  • Oxymorphone (Opana)
  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl

The most common street opioid used today is heroin, which has seen a resurgence as prescription opioid addiction has increased. Some individuals that become dependent on prescription medications will eventually turn to street drugs due to their lower cost and accessibility. Heroin risks can significantly increase due to users never knowing if the drug they purchase on the street will contain other substances that could raise the danger.

Short-Term Effects

Opioids create their effect by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, creating intense feelings of euphoria and relaxation. These sensations make the user crave more of the substance after the effects wear off, which increases the risk of abuse and dependency. Other short-term effects of opioids include:

  • Decreased respiration
  • Mental confusion and fogginess
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Drowsiness, sedated feeling
  • Drop in body temperature
  • Unconsciousness, coma

Long-Term Damage

If opioids are taken over an extended period, the effects can become more damaging. Symptoms of long-term use might include:

  • Suppression of the immune system, raising risk for illness and diseases
  • Frequent gastrointestinal issues
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Vein collapse if the substance is injected
  • Damage to the inner nasal tissue if snorted
  • Damage to the lining of the heart, infection risk
  • Damage to vital organs, including the liver, kidneys and lungs
  • Mental disorders such as depression
  • Sexual dysfunction, especially for men
  • Death due to overdose

Some of the effects of opioid use may be reversed if a person stops using the substance. In some cases, the damage done by opioid use may not be reversed even if the drug is discontinued. The sooner one receives treatment for opioid addiction, the better the chances are for a full recovery.

Signs of Addiction

Opioids are highly addictive as users may begin to need more hits of the drug just to maintain a “normal” feeling. Warning signs of addiction might include:

  • Needing higher amounts of the substance to get the same effect, known as tolerance
  • Significant changes in behavior, personality, sleep or eating patterns
  • Withdrawal from people and groups, spending more time alone
  • Ongoing use even if it is causing problems personally, professionally, financially or legally
  • Alterations in appearance and poor hygiene habits
  • Persistent confusion, blackouts, memory issues
  • Hyper-alert or noticeably “elated”
  • Neglecting work responsibility or home tasks

Seeking Treatment

When someone is showing signs of opioid addiction, it is critical to find help right away. The risks associated with these drugs, including a high incidence of overdose and death, make it particularly dangerous to allow addiction to go unchecked. Professionals struggling with opioid dependency may be hesitant to seek help due to the possible ramifications both personally and professionally. However, not addressing the issue will cause many more problems in the long run.

At the Center for Professional Recovery, we design our programs to address the needs of professionals in need of addiction treatment. You will be surrounded by peers with similar struggles, as well as an experienced, caring staff dedicated to your successful recovery. To learn more or get the help you need today, contact the Center for Professional Recovery at 866.298.0056.

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