The National Center for Health Statistics, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention department, reports drug overdose as the cause of death in more than 750,000 people between 1999 and 2017. Among these 750,000 deaths, opioids made up nearly 450,000 cases.

This epidemic, which has been declared a national emergency, is cause for concern. This wave began in the 1990s when scientists declared prescription opioids as lacking addictive qualities, which led to physicians prescribing them more frequently for pain management.

Signs of Opioid Addiction

As time passed and more people began using prescription opioids, natural, synthetic and methadone, the statistics for opioid abuse, addiction, and overdose began increasing. Besides prescription opioids, subsequent waves of heroin and fentanyl (synthetic opioid) in 2010 and 2013 respectively intensified the problem. In 2018, two out of three cases of overdose-related deaths involved opioids, killing 47,000 people (32% of deaths involved the use of prescription opioids).

Considerably easy access to illicit forms of opioids and unchecked use of prescription medications for various reasons has already led to thousands of people losing the battle with life.

The statistics we’ve mentioned above are quite scary as too many lives have been lost to this epidemic that continues to grow. Prompted by the associated risk of death, awareness around opioid use has been increasing. Since prescription opioids are found to be abused more frequently, the conversation around prescription patterns is shifting.

However, there is a lot more that we can do to support those who might be showing signs of addiction or opioid abuse. As friends and family or just as concerned individuals worried about other people’s wellbeing, one of the few things we can do are increasing our awareness and learning how to detect a potential drug problem in other people.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids refer to a category of hard drugs that exist in natural, semi-synthetic, and completely synthetic forms. They include prescription drugs such as hydrocodone, morphine and oxycodone that are produced in clandestine laboratories. It also includes other opiates such as heroin and opium (black tar).

These drugs work by interacting with opioid receptors present in our brains and nervous systems, inducing feelings of euphoria and pain relief. Their effectiveness as analgesics is what popularized their use for acute and chronic pain management, post-surgery recovery, palliative care, and others.

Despite being controlled substances, opioids abuse and opioid-related deaths are on a rise. While people actively abuse heroin, morphine, and other types of opioids, fentanyl remains the most life-threatening. The CDC reports that the number of fentanyl encounters jumped from 5,343 in 2014 to 13,882 in 2015.

This can be found under legal names as prescription meds such s Actiq and Fentora. Illegally manufactured fentanyl, which may be laced with contaminants, is also increasingly accessible in the streets.

Signs of Opioid Abuse

Understanding the extent of risk and danger a loved one might be potentially exposed to due to opioids, recognizing signs of opioid abuse as early as possible is the only effective strategy against fighting this epidemic.

It’s not always easy to tell if a loved one is abusing opioids, especially in the initial stages. This is because people suffering from opioid use disorder (OUD) are able to hold down jobs and appear normal in social settings. They can mask stability while dealing with a serious addiction to an opioid.

Over time, the dependence on opioids worsens and turns into full-blown addiction. This is when the signs of opioid abuse start becoming more apparent.

When it comes to prescription meds, regular use in a way that was not intended by the doctor is the first sign. This may include taking more than the prescribed dosage or taking it more frequently than suggested. Instead of taking pills when the pain becomes unbearable, they take opioids just because they can and want to.

Furthermore, changes in mood patterns can be telling of an opioid problem. The sudden release of dopamine that follows opioid use may suddenly elate their mood and they may appear happier and calmer. They can suddenly shift from sudden elation to hostility, aggression, and depression as they come down from the “high” opioids create. 

If you’re looking for physical signs, acute effects include inconsistent sleep patterns, constipation, confusion, drowsiness, nausea, sedation, vision and coordination issues, and impairment. Track marks and bruises on the forearm are common in those who use heroin.

Other signs of opioid abuse include behavioral changes. Since such changes are common among people dealing with addiction and substance abuse with other drug types, keep an eye for them.

You begin to see patterns where they begin borrowing medication from others or “losing” their previous refills to get more. If that’s not accessible, they might go to the extent of seeing more than one doctor to get multiple prescriptions under the guise of seeking a second opinion.

They begin being more reckless and caring less about their own or others’ safety, going as far as obtaining drugs from illegal sources or switching to forms that they can find without a prescription.

As their dependence on opioids secretly increases without anyone’s knowledge, they slowly start isolating themselves more and more. As we mentioned before, they can still remain employed and perform other obligations in the beginning, but the behavior changes as the addiction grows.

Eventually, they begin experiencing withdrawal symptoms. With opioid abuse, these signs may appear in a shorter time as compared to other addictive drugs. In fact, it can take as little as four to eight weeks for physical dependence on opioids to form.

People that have chronic opioid use disorder experience severe withdrawal symptoms if they cease using them abruptly. Diarrhea, dilated pupils, vomiting, cramps, pain, restlessness, and increased anxiety are some of them.

If you see multiple of these signs within a span of two months, then check their surroundings. Medicine containers, pills hidden in secretive places, and other paraphernalia such as discarded syringes and spoons with burnt bottoms (in case of injectable opioids like heroin) are a giveaway.

In the end, opioid abuse is a diagnosable disorder and has a chance of being treated and managed with proper care. If a loved one is dealing with OUD, Beat Addiction provides resources for opioid treatment programs (OTP) that can make the road to recovery more accessible.

Find a provider through Beat Addiction here.