All you have to do is watch the nightly news to know that we’re knee-deep in an opioid crisis, the majority of which is due to the relentless waves of synthetic opioids like fentanyl crashing daily into our cities and neighborhoods. According to the Centers for Disease Control, overdose deaths involving any opioid rose from just under 70,000 to well over 80,000 from 2020 to 2021, and judging by early 2022 death tolls, it looks like this trend will continue.
Know Thine Enemy
The first step in combating any addiction is to find out everything you can about what you’re up against. What makes opioids unique from illicit drugs is that they serve a legitimate medical need. However, if it’s not closely controlled, you risk developing a harmful, possibly deadly, addiction.
We often use the terms opioids and opiates interchangeably, as they each create basically the same effect – both activate sensors in the brain to release endorphins, known as the “feel good” chemicals and suppress the central nervous system to mitigate physical pain. The only difference is that opiates are made from naturally-derived opium, and opioids usually refer to their synthetically-produced siblings.
Fentanyl, for example, is an opiate that packs about 100 times the potency of the naturally-derived opioid morphine. In medical settings, fentanyl represents a key ally in the fight against severe pain. In the hands of drug cartels, however, it’s becoming a cheaply-produced mass killer.
Agonist vs. Antagonist
Opioids and opiates generally fall into two main categories – agonists and antagonists. As described above, agonist drugs work by activating the brain’s opioid receptors. Antagonists bind those receptors and temporarily block them from attaching to agonist opioids.
Naloxone injection is an example of an opioid antagonist and works in emergencies to reverse the effects of opioid overdose. Addiction recovery centers may also use another antagonist, Naltrexone, to block the euphoric effects of opioid drug use during treatment.
Other medically-assisted treatment options include opioid agonist Methadone and partial opioid agonist Buprenorphine. While these drugs are in the agonist class, they work more slowly than full agonist drugs, thereby reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms and not producing the euphoria that abusers seek.
Full opioid agonists include:
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
- Meperidine (Demerol)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
- Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)
Partial opioid agonists and full antagonists include:
- Buprenorphine (Subutex)
- Buprenorphine/Naloxone (Suboxone)
- Naltrexone (Vivitrol)
- Naltrexone/Buproprion (Contrave)
- Naloxone Injection (Narcan)
What does an opioid overdose look like?
It’s important to note here that although people regularly overdose on painkillers alone, poly-substance use often plays a key role. Opioid overdose risk increases exponentially when alcohol or other drugs are involved.
To reduce pain, an opioid will slow your breathing and heart rates to put you in a relaxed state. Taking too much of an opioid or using it with other substances will suppress those functions even more, and can quickly lead to respiratory failure and death if not reversed.
You should call 9-1-1 immediately if an individual is experiencing any or all of these symptoms: Restricted breathing or shallow breath, cold or clammy skin, unconsciousness, confusion, extreme lethargy or tiredness, nausea and vomiting, and constricted pupils.
Five Ways to Recognize Opioid Use Disorder
Given the highly addictive nature of opioid drugs, you may wonder if this means you should never use a prescription painkiller again. Thankfully, if you follow your doctor’s strict regimen for pain management, you shouldn’t have to worry about developing an addiction.
That said, our bodies react uniquely to outside substances, so what may spur an unhealthy dependence in one person might not in another. How do you know if you have reached a point where you need help? Opioid recovery center counselors suggest you keep an eye out for the following red flags:
1. Taking the drug outside of prescribed parameters
You are not currently in pain, but you feel you should take a pill to ‘prevent’ later issues. Or, perhaps your doctor prescribed one tablet twice a day, and you start taking pills three or four times a day because you can’t feel ‘normal’ without the increased dosage.
2. Asking for additional prescriptions
The doctor who performed your shoulder surgery only gave you a small number of pills. You ask him to write you a prescription so you can have a backup supply ‘just in case.’
3. ‘Doctor shopping.’
Your physician has cut you off, but you feel she doesn’t understand that you’re still in great pain. You look for a new doctor who will be more sympathetic to your needs and give you more medicine.
4. Looking for pills outside of the medical community
This can include anything from borrowing pills from your friends to buying them from illicit sources. Either way, you’re taking a significant risk by using medication or other drugs not specifically prescribed for you by a medical professional.
5. Making poor decisions
You feel like you have no control over your life anymore, and every choice you make seems to take you from bad to worse. You may even want to do things that put you or your loved ones in danger.
Any one of these warning signs is enough to warrant speaking with a drug rehab counselor immediately. By recognizing early that you have a problem with opioid use and doing something about it, you greatly reduce your risk of overdose and death.
For more information about opioid abuse disorder and to learn how our trained professionals can help you or a loved one, please call (855) 736-7262.