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What You Need to Know About Opioids

Preventing and Overcoming Addiction

The word opioid covers a lot of territory. Opioids can include medications prescribed to alleviate pain, and they can also be illegal, synthetic drugs that can be downright deadly.

The opioid epidemic refers to the increase of both prescription and non-prescription opioid drug use for non-medical purposes. In 2015, of the estimated 20.5 million Americans ages 12 and older that had a substance abuse disorder, 2 million had a disorder involving prescription pain relievers and another 591,000 had a disorder involving heroin. In 2016, 116 people died every day from opioid-related drug overdoses.

Here is what you need to know about opioids, preventing addiction and identifying abuse.

What Are Opioids?

Opioid medications are prescribed to help control pain, typically after a major surgery. The entire group of medications is extensive, including both natural (derived from a poppy plant) and synthetic substances . Opioids break down and bind to receptors in the brain, which reduces perception of pain and creates feelings of euphoria and relaxation.

When Opioids Become a Problem

When taken under the direction of your physician, opioids can provide relief. Yet, the feelings of pleasure derived from opioids can lead to addiction. When the opioid dose wears off, you may crave those feelings. When opioids are taken over an extended period of time, the dosage needed to create those euphoric feelings increases.

“Newer terminology reflects the concept that individuals are susceptible to these substances,” says Jeffrey T. Johnson, DO, medical director for inpatient addiction services at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.

Opioids are most dangerous when they are not prescribed or when usage is not closely monitored by your physician. Changing the dosage, crushing the pill, altering the method of ingestion in any way or combining with other drugs can make you vulnerable to overdose.

Steps for Prevention

If you have recently undergone surgery or have serious pain, work closely with your physician to decide the treatment that is right for you. Work with your physician to find the lowest dose possible, and take your prescription as directed. Be open with your care team should you experience side effects.

Also, make sure you dispose of medication properly once you are done. Talk to your physician or pharmacist about safe disposal options, or review recommendations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Opioids and Your Heart

Not only does opioid abuse put you at high risk of an overdose, it can also do lasting damage to your health. For starters, opioid abuse can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. The culprit responsible for this is increased concentrations of low-density lipoproteins and free triglycerides in the body. These substances can also trigger an irregular heartbeat, which can increase your risk for heart attack.

Opioids and Your Brain

Long-term use of prescription painkillers can lead to problems. Over time, the repeated use makes the brain receptors less sensitive, which means a higher dose is needed for the same effect. This can be the start of developing an addiction.

Addictive substances, especially heroin, can cause lasting brain damage. Opioids can also depress breathing, which can lead to a lack of oxygen and brain damage.

Symptoms and Signs of Overdose

Know when it’s time to seek professional treatment for you or your loved one.

Signs of an overdose can include:

  • Depressed breathing (less than 12 breaths per minute)
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Mood changes
  • Moving slowly
  • Uncontrolled vomiting

Getting Help for Opioid Addiction

At the first sign of an overdose, seek help immediately. First responders carry naloxone, which can help treat overdoses and save lives.

Those dependent on opioids may experience withdrawal symptoms. Inpatient detox and residential programs have trained medical professionals who can help patients safely ween off of opioids.

To better serve those undergoing treatment, Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital has recently expanded its addiction programs. There, patients have access to around-the-clock care and medication to ease the symptoms of withdrawal. They are also supported with education and therapy groups to promote long-term success.

If you or someone you know has an opioid addiction, help is available.

Jeffrey T. Johnson, DO, Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group, Addiction Medicine