Opioid misuse is one of the biggest problems the U.S. faces today. In 2019, there were close to 50,000 opioid-related deaths. This doesn’t just come from illegally made opioids, such as 3-methylfentanyl, which are upwards of 100 times more potent than other opioids. Some of these deaths are caused by legally prescribed opioids, such as fentanyl or morphine. These are very potent and can be fatal, even in small doses.
Since opioids are so strong, you may wonder if they are safe to use. The short answer is yes, if patients use the opioid medication only in its prescribed dosage. However, there are times when opioid use should be stopped, such as when opioid addiction symptoms show or when patients are taking more medication than prescribed.
Below we’ll take a closer look at how to recognize when opioid use is appropriate and when it has become a problem.
What Is an Opioid?
Opioids are used to describe a wide range of drugs that act as depressants in the body. There are legal and illegal opioids. Opiates fall under the opioid family as well.
Some opioids are:
These drugs induce many short-term and long-term effects. Compared to other drugs, the effects of opioids last longer and can be much more potent.
Effects of opioids include:
- A numb feeling through the body
- Slowed breathing
- Extreme relaxation
- Nausea and vomiting
Why Are Opioids Prescribed?
Doctors prescribe opioids because of how they relax the body and relieve pain. Patients recovering from major surgeries or who have chronic pain from disabilities and accidents can be candidates for opioid medication.
Before deciding to prescribe opioids, several forms of therapy should have been exhausted. Other factors, such as if the patient has a history of substance abuse or has family members with substance use disorders, can go into deciding if they’ll receive opioids.
Depending on the degree of pain, length of physical rehabilitation time, and patient health history, doctors will prescribe a certain amount of opioids to be taken.
Safe opioid use can look like:
- taking medication exactly as prescribed by your doctor
- reading instructions on the label before every dose
- not injecting, snorting, or chewing opioids
- refraining from driving or operating heavy machinery after ingesting medication
- if experiencing heavy side effects, contacting your doctor
- using the same pharmacist for every refill so they can best monitor your drug intake
- safely storing and disposing of unused medications and empty containers
- never selling medications
When Are Opioids Abused?
The line between safe and unsafe opioid use can be hard to decipher since both involve actively taking a drug. However, there are clear signs of abuse.
Signs of opioid abuse can be:
- experiencing intense withdrawal symptoms
- taking more opioids than prescribed
- searching out illegal opioids or other street drugs to stay high
- taking opioids even after pain has subsided
- taking someone else’s prescription
- injecting, snorting, or smoking opioids
- taking opioids simply to get high
- taking opioids to feel normal or function throughout the day
- avoiding daily functions, such as work and physical activity
- having trouble making decisions
- sleeping too much or too little
The misuse of opioids has led to a devastating opioid crisis. Since 1999, the number of overdose death rates has steadily been on the rise. In 2010, there were just over 21,000 drug deaths related to opioids. In 2020 that number has skyrocketed to over 68,000.
Many attribute this to several factors, such as:
- unknowingly ingesting a lethal amount of illegal fentanyl, which is more potent than prescribed fentanyl
- combining opioids
- taking more opioids than prescribed
If you are concerned you or a loved one are abusing prescription opioids, it’s best to contact the doctor who prescribed the medication. They can inform you of the next steps to take.