Opiate Abuse Causes, Addiction Signs, Symptoms & Side Effects

No one experiences opiate addiction the same way as someone else. Understanding the signs, symptoms and side effects of opiate addiction is a key component toward starting the recovery journey.

Understanding Opiate Addiction

Learn about opiate addiction

Opiates are drugs that have been extracted from the seeds of poppy plants or their derivatives. Naturally occurring opiates include opium, morphine, codeine, and thebaine. All other opiates are either derivative of these primary drugs or entirely synthetic. These drugs, typically referred to as narcotics, are commonly used for pain relief and to induce sleep. The most commonly used opiates are opium, codeine, morphine, fentanyl, oxycontin, and heroin. While many are legally prescribed others such as heroin are illegal.

Opiates are highly addictive because they produce a sense of euphoria and wellbeing by affecting the regions of the brain that control pleasure. Excessive opiate use results in the brain being unable to produce endorphins, which are natural painkillers. This means that the body is now open to experience pain without having a natural way to control it. This can cause an increased reliance on opiates because they are being used for pain in addition to a natural high, leading to opiate addiction. Over time an individual needs to use more of the substance in order to obtain the same high they first experienced. In order to continue to experience the euphoria, control pain, and avoid the effects of withdrawal the user must continue to take the drug.


Opiate addiction statistics

Opiate abuse is one of the most common forms of drug abuse in the United States. It is estimated that .37% of adults have an opiate addiction, however, this may be underestimated since individuals in jail are not part of the sample. Opiate addiction is found at every age, but the highest rates of opiate use are found in those 29 years old and younger (.82%) while rates decrease with age to .09% in adults over age 65. Overall, men are twice as likely as women to become addicted to opiates. However, these rates are not uniform as the male to female ratio for all opiates but heroin is 1.5:1 while the male to female ratio for heroin is 3:1.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Opiate addiction and co-occurring disorders

It is common for individuals suffering from opiate abuse to have another psychiatric illness which may also play a role in the user’s pattern of opiate addiction. Some co-occurring disorders that may be present with opiate addiction include:

  • Depression
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Alcohol Abuse
  • Schizophrenia
  • Eating Disorders

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for opiate addiction

Although opiate addiction has the potential to effect anyone there are a number of factors that have been hypothesized as causes of the disorder. These include:

  • Genetics: Research has suggested that some individuals are genetically predisposed to develop an opiate addiction. Individuals who have family members that are addicted to opiates or other substances appear to be more likely to develop an opiate addiction than those without a family history of the disorder.
  • Biological: Another theory suggests the possibility that some individuals may not produce enough natural endorphins in their brain which has an effect on mood. This could lead to opiate use in order to cope with this chemical imbalance. Yet this has not been shown to exist in the majority of those with the disorder.
  • Psychological: It has been hypothesized, for certain individuals with self-esteem deficits, the exposure to opiates for pain treatment can cause an opiate addiction to develop. Due to the euphoria and decreased negative mood and anxiety disorder associated with opiates, an individual may find that they are able to better function in social settings and school/professional settings. This can lead to the beginnings of psychological dependence resulting from increased self-esteem and a sense of new found confidence. When this occurs, opiate addiction is likely, as over the long term they may come to believe they are unable to function in various areas of life without the drug. Although this path to opiate addiction may seem to be primarily psychological, physical dependence and addiction are simultaneously developing. Due to the strong psychological dependence when this type of process occurs, detox alone is not enough to end the sense of need or craving for the drug.
  • Environmental: Finally, environmental factors likely play a role in the causing the development of an opiate addiction. It has been hypothesized that the use of opiates may be modeled by someone in the individual’s life. One possibility is that a parent or other relative living with the individual may become addicted to opiates after using them for pain control. If this relative continues to use the opiate after the pain has resolved in front of the individual or uses them to cope with stressors that individual in question may come to believe that this is an acceptable form of coping. Additionally, if a family member is using the drug to cope they are not likely able to teach the individual the appropriate coping strategies. Thus, through observation and modeling, the individual internalizes the idea that the ability to cope is facilitated through the use of opiates.

Overall, it is believed there is no single cause of opiate addiction but that it is caused by a combination of multiple factors.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of opiate addiction

There are a number of symptoms that may be present in individuals suffering from opiate addiction. Those symptoms include:

  • Mood Symptoms
    • Lack of motivation
    • Depressed mood
    • Hyperactivity
  • Physical Symptoms
    • Weight loss
    • Cramping
    • Diarrhea
    • Itchy skin
    • Joint and muscle pain
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Headaches
  • Psychological Symptoms
    • Loss of concentration or interest
    • Confusion or disorientation
    • Mood Swings or extreme behavior changes
    • Depression and Anxiety
    • Distorted perception of reality
  • Behavioral Symptoms
    • Withdrawn socially
    • Slowed or slurred speech
    • Diminished coordination
    • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
    • Stealing from loved ones or other illegal activities


Effects of opiate addiction

There are a number of effects that are a result of opiate addiction that can affect all aspects of an individual’s life. These effects include:

  • Social problems (Loss of support of family and friends, isolation)
  • Insomnia
  • Work or school problems
  • Financial trouble (loss of life savings, loss of home)
  • Adverse health consequences (abscesses, pulmonary complications, infections in the heart, collapsed veins, permanent lung, liver, and kidney damage)
  • History of drug related crimes and incarceration
  • Involuntary commitment to a mental hospital
  • Death from overdose
  • Suicide

Withdrawl Effects

Withdrawl effects of opiate addiction

Prolonged opiate use can cause an individual to become physically and psychologically dependent on the substance. Opiate withdrawal refers to the negative symptoms that occur when someone who is dependent on one of these drugs stops using it. There are a variety of symptoms that an individual can experience when going through withdrawal. Those include:

  • Irritation or agitation
  • Cravings
  • Sweating
  • Muscle aches
  • Cramps
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Shakes
  • Insomnia
  • Diarrhea
  • Suicidal ideations

Some of these withdrawal symptoms can set in as early as a few hours after the last dose of the substance and can last as long as a few days. While withdrawal symptoms are extremely unpleasant, they are generally not life threatening unless the individual acts on any suicidal ideation they may be experiencing. Due to the extreme discomfort of withdrawal, individuals who attempt to stop taking the drug without help often relapse. That is why treatment including a more humane method of detox is crucial for this population.