Learn more about the warning signs of opiate abuse

How to Recognize the Signs of Opioid Abuse

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), deaths in the United States from prescription opioids, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone, have quintupled since 1999. From 1999 to 2016 there were over 200,000 deaths from drug overdoses.

Opioids are frequently prescribed to relieve pain. Opioid drugs are chemically related and interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and the brain. In addition to relieving pain, opioids can cause euphoria, which may lead to misuse and overdose.

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Over time, opioid use can lead to tolerance, which is the need for more of a substance to achieve the desired effect (or a reduced effect when taking the same amount of the substance).

It’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of opioid use disorder. If you notice any of these symptoms in family or friends, help is available.

Opioid Abuse and Dependence

Opioid pain relievers are generally safe when taken for a short period of time (generally up to a few weeks) and as prescribed. Regular or prolonged use, even as prescribed, can cause dependence.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.

Opioid Misuse or Risky Use Symptoms

  • Taking the substance/medication in larger amounts or longer than intended
  • Taking someone else’s medication, even for a legitimate purpose such as to relieve pain
  • An inability to cut down or control the use of the substance/medication
  • Craving or a strong desire to use the substance/medication
  • Recurrent use of the substance/medication despite harmful consequences
  • Using in contradiction to prescribing guidelines (e.g., combining the substance/medication with alcohol or other drugs)
  • Using the substance in a manner other than intended (e.g., crushing pills)

Social Indications of Opioid Use Disorder

Often, people who are struggling with opioid use disorder will start behaving differently. Here are some indications to look for:

  • Withdrawal from social and recreational activities
  • Changes in behavior or mood
  • Financial problems
  • Making bad or reckless decisions
  • Avoiding friends and family
  • Missing school or work due to use
  • Suspension from school or job loss due to a drug-related incident

Opioid Overdose Symptoms

  • Poor coordination
  • Shallow breathing or breathing stops
  • Person unresponsive
  • Drowsiness
  • Pale, clammy skin
  • Lips and fingernails turn blue or gray
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Slurred speech

If you suspect an overdose, call 911, administer naloxone (Narcan if available, and do not leave the person alone until help arrives.

Treatment is available for opiate use disorders — and treatment works! If you aren’t sure what to do, seek advice from the experts at UPMC Addiction Medicine Program — you could save a life.