What Are Prescription Opiates?
Opiates are a class of drugs extracted or refined from the poppy plant. As such, they are a group of naturally-occurring, although still extremely powerful, painkillers. Opiates include illegal drugs such as opium and heroin and the prescription painkillers morphine and codeine. A closely-related group of painkillers are opioids, which are chemically similar to opiates but are synthetic–manufactured in a lab–as opposed to naturally-occurring. Opioids include drugs such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, fentanyl, and methadone, among others. Some people use the terms opiate and opioid interchangeably because they act similarly in the body.
Why Are Opiates So Addictive?
Opiates are so addictive because of the effect they have on brain chemistry and the resulting impact on the body. Opiates interfere with the way the brain processes pain signals, which makes them effective painkillers, but also makes them very habit-forming. Opiates bind to opiate receptors in the brain, blocking the production of a chemical called GABA. Under normal circumstances, GABA regulates dopamine production, so when GABA is blocked, dopamine floods the brain. This dopamine rush blocks any feelings of pain, and at the same time, produces extreme feelings of pleasure–the euphoric “high” associated with drug abuse.
With repeated opiate use, the individual will become tolerant to opiates, meaning that the same dose will no longer produce the intended effect, whether that is pain management or getting high. At this point, the user will have to take higher or more frequent doses in order to achieve any results. Opiate dependence begins when the body becomes physically dependent on opiates just to feel normal. If the person stops taking opiates, he or she will experience withdrawal symptoms, including:
- Reduced energy
- Excessive sweating
- Runny nose
- Muscle aches and pains
When a person becomes tolerant and dependent on opiates and feels compelled to use them in spite of the negative health effects, that person is considered addicted to opiates. You might wonder how long it takes to get addicted to opiates, and the answer is, sadly, not long at all. How long to get addicted to opiates varies from person to person depending on individual differences, the type of opiate used, and the strength of the dose. A person with a low-dose prescription who follows the doctor’s instructions will take longer to become addicted than a person pursuing opiate abuse to get high and starting with a higher dose. Nevertheless, both people intentionally abusing opiates and those who use them for a legitimate medical need can become addicted. Many people who end up abusing these drugs start off using them with a prescription for pain management. Consider the following statistics:
- Between 21 and 29% of patients with prescriptions for opioids misuse them
- Between 8 and 12% of patients with prescriptions for opioids develop as opioid use disorder
- Between 4 and 6% of patients who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin use
- About 80% of heroin users began with prescription opioid misuse
How to Avoid Prescription Opiate Dependence
If you have an injury or surgery that requires pain management, try to avoid opiate painkillers if at all possible. Speak with your doctor about alternative approaches to pain management. If you do require an opiate prescription, it is critical to follow the doctor’s instructions for the amount and timing of the drugs taken. Never take more pills than prescribed or use them more frequently than directed. Stop taking the medication soon as your pain is manageable.
If you feel that you or someone you love has become dependent on prescription opiates, seek help immediately. Call our toll-free number today to find the right treatment program.