Recognizing the Signs of Opioid Use Disorder

Therapist discussing opioid use disorder

Opioid use disorder (OUD) is a medical condition characterized by the compulsive use of opioid drugs, despite negative consequences. Even when a person wants to stop, the OUD makes it difficult to do so. Though opioid medications can be prescribed by a doctor, they are also made illegally. Any time a person misuses opioids, whether they are licit or illicit, they run the risk of developing OUD. 

If you or a loved one is experiencing opioid use disorder, help is available. There is no cure for OUD, but there are therapies and medications that can help you make a full recovery. Let’s learn more about opioids, the signs and symptoms to be aware of and your options for treatment. 

What Are Opioids? 

Opioids are a class of drugs that include synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, illegal drugs like heroin and prescription painkillers, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. They travel through the blood and attach to receptors in the brain cells. This blocks pain messages and releases feel-good chemicals, causing relaxation, pain relief and euphoria.   

Opioids may be prescribed by a doctor to treat pain, but there are risks to them when they aren’t used properly. At lower doses, opioids can make you sleepy. But at higher doses, they can slow breathing and heart rate to dangerously low levels. This is what can lead to overdose. The risk of complications is increased when opioids are combined with other medications or alcohol. 

Why Are Opioids Addictive? 

What makes opioids effective at reducing pain is also what makes them addictive. The pleasure you get from taking opioids can be appealing, prompting you to use the drug again. Over time, you can build tolerance to opioids, which means you need more and more to achieve the same pleasurable effects. 

The more you take opioids, the more you begin to rely on them to function. If you try to stop or cut back, you will experience painful and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that make it easier to just keep using. Eventually, opioid misuse can lead to OUD, which is the compulsive use of opioids even though they are causing negative effects in your life.  

How Many People Misuse Opioids? 

Unfortunately, opioid misuse is a prevalent problem in the U.S. An estimated 2.5 million people had OUD in the past year, yet only 1 in 5 got the help they needed. There are many barriers to accessing treatment, including stigma and lack of education. For instance, many people worry that if they seek treatment for OUD, they’ll just be replacing one substance for another. However, the medications used to treat OUD are safe and effective. They allow individuals to maintain their recoveries while also preventing overdose deaths. 

Since OUD is a medical condition that worsens over time, individuals who don’t seek treatment can die. Opioid-involved deaths rose from 49,860 in 2019 to 81,806 in 2022. Due to these numbers, drug overdose is now a leading cause of death. In fact, you are more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than a car accident. This shows the gravity of the opioid epidemic. 

Woman talking to therapist in therapy session

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of an Opioid Addiction? 

OUD is a complex medical condition with clear signs and symptoms. As the condition progresses, you will likely see an increase in the number and severity of symptoms. The most concerning signs to pay attention to are: 

  • Physical symptoms. There are a number of physical symptoms that occur when a person takes opioids, such as constricted pupils, lowered blood pressure, lowered heart rate, constipation, nausea and sleepiness. 
  • Behavioral symptoms. Since OUD is a type of substance use disorder, it involves many of the same behavioral symptoms, including withdrawing from friends, losing interest in previously enjoyed activities, mood swings and financial troubles. 
  • Dependence. You become dependent on opioids when you need them to function. Physical dependence can exist without you having OUD. However, dependence makes it more likely to develop this condition.
  • Unhealthy use. Using opioids in a way that is not intended is another sign of OUD. People with OUD continue using opioids even though they are causing problems in their life, such as decreased job performance and relationship issues. 
  • Cravings. Cravings are physical and emotional urges to use opioids. Even the slightest triggers can bring them on. 
  • Withdrawal symptoms. If you try to cut back or quit opioids, you’ll experience withdrawal symptoms, which feel like a bad case of the flu. This happens because you are dependent on the substance and your body is trying to adapt. 

Dangers of Opioid Overdose 

An opioid overdose involves taking too much of an opioid or a combination of opioids and other drugs. This becomes toxic to the body and it can cause the systems to shut down. Because opioids lower heart rate and breathing rate, they can slow to dangerous levels and stop altogether. Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell if someone is experiencing an overdose, as opioids cause people to feel drowsy. 

However, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the signs of overdose as this can save a life. Naloxone is a drug that reverses the effects of opioids, and if you administer it in time, it can prevent death. This drug does not replace medical attention, though. It’s only meant to hold the person over until help arrives. The signs of an opioid overdose are: 

  • Unresponsiveness or unconsciousness 
  • Slowed or stopped breathing 
  • Cold or clammy skin 
  • Blue lips or fingernails 
  • Snoring or rattling sounds 

Treatment for Opioid Addiction 

OUD can be effectively treated with a combination of medication-assisted therapy and behavioral therapies. Each person is different, so no two treatment plans look the same. The first step is to go through detox, which lasts about one week. The symptoms associated with opioid withdrawal can be distressing, but they are typically not life-threatening. However, seeking medically supervised detox is ideal, as you’ll receive support and medications to keep you comfortable. 

Once you complete detox, you can move onto a treatment program that addresses the underlying causes of your OUD. Oftentimes, people find that they are using opioids to mask emotional pain, such as childhood trauma or undiagnosed mental illness. By working through these deeper struggles, you can make a full recovery. And, if you were originally prescribed opioids to treat physical pain, you can explore new ways to manage your pain, such as with meditation, journaling or art therapy. 

Opioid Addiction Treatment in Easton, PA 

Recovery Cove treats opioid use disorders of all severities. We provide expert care in a nurturing environment while helping our clients build honest and fulfilling lives. With our full continuum of care, ranging from medication-assisted therapy to aftercare, we ensure our clients have all the tools they need to make a full recovery. To start your journey to healing, contact us today at 484-549-COVE