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Understanding Opiate Side Effects

There are both short- and long-term effects from opiate use and addiction which vary from mildly annoying to dangerous and, in the case of an overdose, deadly.

Among the most common short-term problems—which occur when opiate use first begins or when someone begins increasing their dosage—are breathing problems, known as respiratory depression. Because the drugs directly affect the portions of the brain stem that regulate breathing, first time users can find themselves short of breath. In the case of heavy use related to opiate addiction the brain essentially becomes unable to regulate respiration, and abusers may stop breathing all together.

Other common side effects of opiate use are confusion, again because the drugs—designed for pain relief—work directly on the central nervous system. Users may feel slower in their thinking and reaction time and may experience a loss of coordination. Constipation, which nearly all users experience, is also a side effect as the pain receptors in the gut react instantly to the chemicals present in opiates.

Additionally, many users experience periods of sleepiness when taking opiates, and too often this becomes a desirable effect—allowing the user to “escape” their pain—that leads to overuse and eventually addiction. Itching has also been reported in approximately 10 percent of people taking opiates, and more than one-quarter report mild to moderate nausea that often fades as the body becomes accustomed to the drugs. Lastly, sexual side effects in both men and women are being reported and studied more and more, as researchers believe chronic opiate use reduces testosterone levels and cause erectile dysfunction in men as well as numbs the pleasure centers of the brain for women. Coupled with the pain for which an individual uses opiates, sex becomes less enjoyable and is often discontinued while opiates are being used.

When the body develops a tolerance to opiates a user is at risk of developing an addiction as they increase their dosage to achieve the desired effects. Unlike many drugs opiates accumulate in the body and their effects—slowed breathing, low heartbeat, dizziness and seizures—can easily become permanent conditions.

As the drugs become more widely used in this country physicians are seeing a connection between opiate addiction and depression. One study shows that those people who take opiates regularly for more than three months increase their chances of developing major depression by more than 50 percent. It’s believed that, because opiates bind to receptors to decrease the perception of pain, the “reward” centers of the brain are elevated and a higher threshold of the ability to feel pleasure is reached. Therefore, depression occurs when a pleasurable state can no longer be achieved no matter how much an addict increases their use of the drugs.

Lastly, opiate addiction and pregnancy is becoming an epidemic as rates of abuse increase. More than four percent of women reported using opiates while pregnant, and adverse effects on fetuses include congenital heart defects as well babies being delivered with severe complications to their central nervous and respiratory systems as well as problems with their digestive tracts.