Know the Signs: Opioid Addiction

Know the Signs: Opioid Addiction

Spot the signs of an opioid addiction before it’s too late.

There were nearly 2 million people addicted to prescription opioid painkillers in the US in 2014 (the latest year for which data are available), and more than a half-million more are addicted to heroin. People with this drug addiction could be your neighbor, your friend or even a close family member.

The first step to helping someone is recognizing there’s a problem. Here’s how to tell if someone you know is addicted to opioids—before it’s too late.

Signs of a high
When someone takes opioids, molecules of the drug attach to sections of cells called opioid receptors. This serves to block pain a person is experiencing, but it also creates a pleasurable sensation of euphoria and can even affect breathing. Here’s what to look for if you suspect someone is high on opioids.

  • Drowsiness
  • Euphoria
  • Constricted pupils
  • Confusion
  • Flushing and itching
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slow heart rate
  • Slow and shallow breathing

If a person has overdosed and has stopped breathing, a drug called naloxone can reverse the overdose and help the person start breathing again. The naloxone replaces the opioid attached to opioid receptors, so the person begins breathing again and goes into withdrawal almost instantly.

How to spot withdrawal symptoms
Withdrawal from opioids is so uncomfortable that many people will go to extreme lengths to get another hit. Withdrawal can start as early as four hours after the last dose and will subside after about a week. Though uncomfortable, withdrawal is not fatal.

While an opioid high causes constipation and the pupils to constrict, withdrawal reverses those two symptoms, causing diarrhea and dilated pupils. Anxiety and agitation are common, as are muscle aches, a runny nose, insomnia and sweating. Nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramps are considered late-stage symptoms of withdrawal.

Methadone, naltrexone and buprenorphine are all opioid medications that are often used to ease withdrawal symptoms. Speak to a healthcare provider about being prescribed one of these or other medications if you’re serious about quitting.

An addicted mind
Every person with this addiction is different and these behaviors are far from universal. But if someone is dependent on opioids—or anything else—and possibly trying to hide that addiction, here are some patterns and thought processes to look for, like loss of self-control, risky sexual behavior, or theft and other criminal acts.

Addiction to an illegal substance becomes an obsession. The life of someone who is addicted to opioids revolves around getting their next opioid fix. Other priorities, even important things like family and work, matter less to someone in the grip of addiction. People with an opioid addiction will compulsively seek out their drugs, even if they don’t want to and even though they know the risks and harm.

Deception is another part of the problem. People trying to hide an opioid addiction will often lie about where they’re going and what they’re doing; they may ask for money under false pretenses; they may sell belongings to finance their addiction. If the money runs out, they may turn to criminal means, like theft of money or goods to sell.

You can’t make someone quit; that person has to do it on his or her own. What you can do is support your loved one without enabling him or her. You can help monitor the person’s health, be a source of stability and try to keep him or her busy and provide a purpose. 

Medically reviewed in January 2019.

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