Last updated: September 25, 2023
Opioids are a class of powerful medication to relieve pain. Common opioids such as oxycodone (Percocet and OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, and morphine work by preventing pain signals from reaching the brain and affecting the areas of the brain that control emotion. Like opiates derived from poppy plants (such as heroin), the powerful nature of the drug makes them extremely addictive and abuse is now at epidemic levels in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Over half of all drug overdose deaths in the United States are caused by prescription drugs and painkillers are the most deadly and most abused class.
A common sign of opioid abuse is extreme drowsiness and lack of energy. When the drug’s effects are at a peak, the user may have drooping eyelids or appear to be falling asleep. People who abuse opioids often excuse this as “just being tired,” although there may be a noticeable pattern of drowsiness throughout the day. This is because opioids, as a narcotic, induce sleep.
Inability to concentrate
This is one of the drugs you’d have to avoid operating heavy machinery or a motor vehicle. Opioids affect a person’s ability to concentrate and they can interfere with work and school. While the inattentiveness may not be apparent, many people suffering from opioid abuse miss work or school, arrive late, leave early during the day, miss deadlines, and display a noticeable decline in work or school performance.
Changes in social behavior
The drowsiness and difficulty concentrating can make it hard for someone addicted to opioids to maintain friendships and hobbies. Social isolation is a common sign of abuse as well as spending time with people who also abuse prescription drugs and increases with use.
Someone addicted to opioids may speak in code around friends or on the phone, be unwilling to allow family members to meet friends, or be vague when asked for details about his or her life. By itself, this may not be enough of a warning sign, but this could be a helpful confirmation of suspicions.
There are several physical symptoms that indicate recent usage. If a person once used a legal form of the prescription, but exhibits the same physical reactions after it’s expired, they may still be using some form of the drug.
- Flushed skin on the neck and face
- Itching of the legs, arms, and stomach
- Constricted pupils, even in dim lighting
- Shallow breathing
- Slurred speech
- Excessive sweating
Signs of withdrawal
Someone who is dependent on opioids can exhibit escalating signs of withdrawal as abuse increases. These symptoms can be very painful and include prolonged vomiting, diarrhea, chills, uncontrollable muscle spasms, anxiety, depression, insomnia, anger, stomach pain, joint pain, and nasal congestion. These symptoms can be very difficult to hide, although they may be explained away as being a bad case of the flu. By considering other warning signs, you can better identify when withdrawal is to blame.
Escaping Opioid Dependency
Many people suffering from a dependence on opioids hesitate to seek help out of fear of the social stigma or the symptoms of withdrawal. Many are simply too embarrassed to turn to family members or loved ones for help.
Opioid dependency can come from very little exposure and because it is so powerful, it can create a new medical condition requiring help after itself being prescribed for an ailment. Treating that dependency requires help, including counseling, rehabilitation, and perhaps medications like naltrexone and buprenorphine that prevent symptoms of withdrawal during detox. It’s dangerous enough to be worth the attention needed to spot the signs of opioid abuse.