Opioid Abuse and Addiction
In Colorado, including in major metro areas like Colorado Springs, Boulder, and Denver, there has been an increase in the use of heroin and other opioids including prescription painkillers. Overdose deaths have gone down somewhat but still remain very high. It’s not only Colorado facing a problem with opioids, as the nation is currently focusing its attention on combating the problem plaguing so many states.
Drug overdose can be fatal. If you suspect someone is experiencing an overdose, call 911 immediately. Do NOT be afraid to seek help. If you do not have access to a phone contact Colorado Poison Center for online assistance.
So what are opiates and why are they so addictive?
What Are Opiates?
Opiate is a term that’s often used interchangeably with opioids. These are a certain class of drugs that include both prescription painkillers as well as the illicit street drug heroin. These drugs are grouped together because they act on the brain and the central nervous system of the user in a similar way to one another, and they also have a high potential to be habit-forming. Opioid and opiate abuse is an issue that is plaguing the entire country.
Some of the most commonly abused legal prescription opioids include fentanyl, morphine, and codeine, while of course, heroin is the most commonly abused illegal opiate. Specific name brands of opioid prescription drugs that are often abused include OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, and Lortab.
In technical terms, the word opiate refers to drugs that are naturally derived from the opium poppy, while opioid refers to synthetic or semi-synthetic drugs, but again, these terms at this point are very commonly used interchangeably with one another.
Opiate addiction is a tremendous problem in Colorado, and the U.S. and hundreds of millions of prescriptions for these drugs are written each year. Prescription painkillers are intended to treat severe or chronic pain that can’t be treated any other way, but prescriptions have flooded the market and made them available to more and more people over the years. For a lot of people, an addiction to opioids begins with prescription painkillers and then moves on to include heroin, which is cheaper.
Understanding Opioid and Opiate Addiction
When it comes to opioid and opiate addiction, there is a lot to learn. Opiates are highly addictive, and some would consider them the most addictive class of drugs there is. Whether you’re taking prescription painkillers or heroin, you can become addicted quickly. People find that even when they’re prescribed opioids for a legitimate reason and begin taking them only for a short time, they become addicted.
Along with the issue of whether or not opiates are addictive is the concept of tolerance and physical dependence. When you take opiates, your body becomes used to them relatively quickly, and you need higher doses to get the desired effects, whether that’s the euphoric high they can create, or even just pain relief. As your tolerance to opioids builds so does your physical dependence.
Physical dependence is a separate concept from psychological addiction, and you can be dependent on opioids without being addicted. Physical dependence means that your body has become used to the presence of the opioids and if you were to stop taking them suddenly, you would experience withdrawal.
Why Are Opioids So Addictive?
With so much of the spotlight in Colorado and nationwide on the use of opioids and opioid addiction, you may be wondering why they’re so addictive.
It’s all about how they affect the brain when they’re taken. When you take opioids, including prescription drugs and heroin, they bind to opioid receptors in your brain and central nervous system.
This triggers a release of a flood of dopamine which is a feel-good chemical in your brain. It’s a much larger amount than what would be released naturally, and that’s where the euphoric high comes from.
Heroin and other opioids affect the reward and pleasure centers of your brain, so your brain feels like it wants to continue seeking out what triggered the good feelings, which in this case is the drug. That’s how an addiction to opioids is born, and your brain is pushing you to keep taking them, and that’s why you experience intense cravings.
An addiction to opioids can occur after taking them just a few times, and in many ways, the chemical makeup of your brain starts to shift, and this continues the longer you take the drugs. That’s why it’s so hard to stop taking opioids, although it is possible with professional treatment.
Opioids also slow the central nervous system, and this means they affect breathing and heartbeat. They affect the limbic system and the spinal cord as well.
Using opioids, particularly for a prolonged period, can make it so that your body no longer produces its own endorphins and feel-good chemicals, and when this happens using opioids isn’t about trying to get the pleasurable high anymore. Instead, it’s about trying to avoid the negative psychological and physical feelings you get without the drug. One way to look at addiction to opioids is that instead of chasing something good, it moves to avoiding something bad, and that’s a key way to think about addiction in general.
Signs of Opioid Addiction
The following are some of the signs of an opioid addiction:
- Doctor shopping to try to get multiple prescriptions for painkillers
- Changes in mood or general changes in behavior
- Pill bottles in the trash
- Changes in sociability or relationship problems
- The appearance of financial problems
- Creating symptoms to get more opioids
Also, as was touched on above, when someone is addicted to opioids and tries to stop taking them suddenly they may experience flu-like withdrawal symptoms including a headache, nausea, vomiting, sweating, fatigue, anxiety and insomnia.
It’s important to realize there are excellent addiction resources in Colorado, whether you’re in Denver, Boulder, or a smaller town like Palmer Lake. There’s no shame in being addicted to opioids, but it is important to educate yourself and seek help if necessary.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.