Opiates Abuse Causes, Addiction Signs, Symptoms & Side Effects

Often times the signs of opioid addiction can be difficult to identify. One of the most important steps in the recovery journey is understanding the signs, symptoms and side effects of opioid addiction.

Understanding Opioid Addiction

Learn about opioids and substance abuse

Opiates, which are typically referred to as narcotics, are most commonly used for pain relief and to induce sleep. These drugs are originally derived from the seeds of poppy plants or their byproducts. Most opiates are synthetic, but some naturally occurring forms include opium and morphine.

This drug class produces an intense sense of euphoria and safety in addition to pain-relieving properties, which makes them highly addictive. Many people who present with pain disorders later become addicted to pharmaceutical opiates like hydrocodone and oxycodone.

The overuse of opiates causes many negative problems for the user. Prolonged opioid usage results in the inability for the brain to naturally produce endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers. When the body is unable to properly regulate and manage pain, an opiate user may develop an increased reliance on the drug as the opiates are now used to manage pain and create an overall sense of happiness and contentment.  Over a prolonged period of time an individual will need more of the substance in order to obtain the same level of high they first experienced, which is called “tolerance.”

If an opiate addict decides to stop taking opiates, his or her body will begin to go through withdrawal, which is a cluster of symptoms that are highly unpleasant and may result in the user seeking more opiates to alleviate these very nasty feelings.

However, with a proper inpatient treatment program and medical detoxification process, people who are addicted to opiates can go on and live a sober and joyful life.


Opioid 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. 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.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for opioid addiction

Although anyone can become an opioid addict, there are a number of factors that have been hypothesized as causes of the addiction. These include:

  • Genetic: 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 addition than those without a family history of the disorder.
  • Biological: One theory suggests that some individuals do not produce enough natural endorphins in their brain which can affect their mood. This chemical imbalance may lead to opiate use, as a means of coping with negative feelings caused by this imbalance.
  • Psychological: For certain individuals it has been hypothesized that exposure to opiates for pain can lead to an addiction. Due to the euphoria, decreased negative mood and anxiety an individual may find that they are able to better function in social settings and school/professional settings when using opiates. This can lead to the start of an opiate addiction because individuals come to believe that they are unable to function without the substance.
  • EnvironmentalFinally, 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 with stressors in life.

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

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of opioid addiction

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

Opiate addiction can have many consequences on all aspects of an individual’s life. Some of these effects include:

  • Social problems (loss of support of family and friends, isolation)
  • Work problems
  • Problems at school
  • Financial problems
  • Insomnia
  • 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 or suicide

Co-Occurring Disorders

Opioid addiction and co-occurring disorders

It is common for individuals suffering from opiate abuse to have another psychiatric illness. Some co-occurring disorders that may be present with opiate addiction include:

  • Depression
  • Alcohol and other substance abuse
  • Schizophrenia
  • Eating disorders
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Anxiety disorders (post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder)

Effects of Withdrawal

Effects of withdrawal from opioids

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.