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The Dangers of Opioid Painkiller Addiction

Opioid prescription drugs, such as OxyContin (oxycodone) and Vicodin (hydrocodone), are most commonly prescribed for the treatment of moderate to severe pain and are often referred to as painkillers. Opioids can be effective in pain management and treatment when taken as directed.

It is important to note that prescription opioids affect the brain in the same way as heroin. Not only does this similarity present risk for addiction and abuse of prescription painkillers—particularly if used for non-medical purposes—but it also presents risk that the user may eventually turn to heroin as an alternative drug of choice. All too often, opioid painkillers are a gateway drug to heroin use and addiction.

The Deadliness of Opioid Prescription Drugs at a Glance:

  • In 2016, an estimated 1.8 million people aged 12 or older had an addiction to painkillers.1
  • Overdose deaths due to prescription opioids were 5 times higher in 2016 than 1999.2
  • By 2002, deaths related to prescription painkillers had surpassed those due to heroin or cocaine abuse.3

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Opioid Prescriptions: Gateway to Heroin?

Opioid prescription drugs tend to not be seen as dangerous as illicit drugs because they are prescribed by a doctor. Prescription drugs tend to be less stigmatizing in society than illegal drugs, as painkillers are deemed medically necessary for pain treatment and management.

Opioid painkiller abuse can lead to a dangerous dependence and addiction—not only to opioid prescription drugs but also to heroin.

However, opioid abuse can still lead to a dangerous dependence and addiction—not only to prescription drugs but also to heroin. Those struggling with opioid painkiller addiction may be left with few choices for maintaining their addiction once their prescription drug of choice is no longer affordable or accessible.

Rx Opioid Painkillers as Gateway Drugs to Heroin

Heroin’s relatively low cost and availability make it an attractive, comparatively easy-to-obtain substitute for opioids. Opioid prescription drug users are 19 times more likely to try heroin than those who have no prior opioid drug use—and the risk of turning to heroin increases as frequency of opioid use increases.4

Among opioid painkiller users—those who are dependent on these prescription drugs are more likely to try heroin compared with those who are not dependent. One study has estimated that 1 in 15 prescription drug abusers will try heroin within 10 years of opioid abuse.5

President Obama’s administration acknowledged America’s growing opioid abuse epidemic and committed in October 2015 to a set of strategies for combatting this abuse.

Can Opioid Prescription Drugs Kill Me?

Prescription drugs are safest when used as directed by a healthcare professional. Opioids can cause drowsiness—which is why the prescription label will warn against hazardous activities such as operating heavy machinery while taking the drug.

Do people really die from opioid prescriptions? This 23-minute documentary reveals the dark side of painkiller prescriptions.

Non-medical use or abuse of opioid prescription drugs can lead to overdose and death. Non-medical use means taking the drug in ways other than those prescribed. Taking the drug in ways other than prescribed can include the following:

  • Taking more pills than directed, whether as a single large dose or taking the prescribed dose more frequently than prescribed.
  • Crushing and snorting or injecting the drug.
  • Combining opioids with other sedative or depressant substances, including alcohol, can compound these dangers.

Health Hazards of Opioid Abuse

Opioid prescription drug abuse may cause any of the following6, 7:

  • Irregular heart rhythms
  • Excessive mood swings
  • Sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea
  • Constipation and bowel dysfunction
  • Osteoporosis (in long term abusers)
  • Slowed breathing (depressed respiration) and hypoxia (when the body is deprived of adequate oxygen levels)
  • Coma
  • Permanent brain damage

Studies show that prescription painkiller abuse can also lead to adverse mental health outcomes, including major depressive episodes—particularly among adolescents.Opioid overdose deaths are also a growing problem among women, as women may be more likely to experience chronic pain, and may become dependent on prescription painkillers more quickly than men.9

Deaths from Opioid Prescription Drugs

Opioid abuse during pregnancy can lead to drug withdrawal in the newborn, among other pregnancy and birth complications9 Furthermore, those who inject the opioid powder for a more immediate euphoric effect are at high risk for contracting HIV, hepatitis C, and other infectious diseases transmitted through contact with blood or other bodily fluids.

Developing a tolerance is a major concern as the brain becomes desensitized and less responsive to the effects of the opioid drug over time.

Higher doses are then necessary to provide the same relief—leading to a greater risk of overdose and death.

Consistent, high-dose use can also result in an individual developing physiological dependency. Once established, this dependency almost guarantees that an attempt at recovery will first necessitate overcoming the unpleasant hurdle of withdrawal. Opioid withdrawal syndrome—while not inherently life-threatening—is very difficult to face, and increases the risk for relapse. All told, prescription opioid addiction can have numerous health and emotional consequences that may require special treatment attention.

How Do I Know If I’m Addicted to My Opioid Prescription Drugs?

Signs and symptoms of opioid addiction include:10

  • Drowsiness.
  • Weight loss or weight gain.
  • Avoiding contact with family or friends.
  • Change in friends, hobbies, or activities.
  • Drop in grades or performance at work.
  • Secretive behavior.
  • Moodiness or irritability.
  • Missing medications.
  • Change in attitude or personality.
  • Flu-like symptoms (nausea, vomiting, sweating, shaky hands).

If you find yourself asking for prescriptions from more than one doctor (known as “doctor shopping”) or taking more than the recommended dose for the feeling it gives you, then you may be addicted. Behavioral changes can occur from long-term use, as opioid prescription drugs create changes in the brain, and may also be a warning sign of addiction.

How to Prevent Painkiller Addiction

Knowing the dangers of opioid abuse and addiction is critical to preventing addiction. The following measures should help minimize the risks of developing an addiction to opioid prescription drugs:

  1. Take the prescription drug as directed.
  2. Talk to your healthcare provider before you stop taking an opioid or change the dose.
  3. Be aware of any potential drug interactions before taking prescription opioids. Discuss any drugs you are taking with your doctor – including prescription, over-the-counter, herbal or dietary supplements.
  4. Talk with your doctor if you experience any signs or symptoms that may be related to prescription painkiller abuse, or if you are worried about opioid addiction.
  5. Do not share any medication with others. Every patient must first be evaluated by a healthcare provider. The healthcare provider will assess if opioids are medically necessary and if the health benefits outweigh the risks to that individual patient.
  6. Keep all prescriptions out of the reach of children and adolescents.


Help Yourself or a Loved One Who Is Addicted

If you or a loved one suffers from opioid addiction, call to speak with a treatment support specialist to learn more about your recovery options.

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  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prescription Opioid Overdose Data.
  3. Paulozzi et al., Increasing deaths from opioid analgesics in the United States, Pharmacoepidemiol. Drug Saf., 15 (2006), p. 618–627.
  4. Pradip et al. Associations of Nonmedical Pain Reliever Use and Initiation of Heroin Use in the US. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. Data Review. SAMHSA (2013).
  5. Busch et al. Abuse of Prescription Pain Medications Risks Heroin Use. National Institute on Drug Abuse, Infographic, Jan 2014.
  6. University of Utah Health Care Pain Center. Risks of Long Term Opioid Use.
  7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Prescription Drug Abuse: What are the possible consequences of opioid use and abuse? Nov 2014.
  8. Ali et al., The mental health consequences of nonmedical prescription drug use among adolescents, J. Ment. Health Policy Econ., Mar 2015, 18(1), pp. 3-15.
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prescription Painkiller Overdoses: A Growing Epidemic, Especially Among Women. Jul 2013.
  10. New York State Government. Recognizing the Signs of Addiction.

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