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The Effects of Opioids on the Body

Opioid misuse has received much attention in the media recently, as it continues to devastate communities across the country. If your doctor has prescribed you opioid pain medication, it’s important that you know the effects of opioids on the body. If you take them properly and for a short amount of time, prescription opioids may safely relieve your pain.

Signs of Opioid Dependency

It’s crucial to know the signs of opioid dependency and how opioids affect the body.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids attach themselves to opiate-sensitive nerve cells that produce the same chemical that creates pleasure for performing survival tasks, like eating. Opioids can relieve pain, induce slow breathing, and reduce coughing. Opioids also increase feelings of pleasure and relaxation.

If you take opioids for a long period of time, they change the way nerve cells react in your brain, leading to physical dependency. This is why it’s important that people only take opioids for a short period when necessary and under a doctor’s care.

If you abruptly stop taking opiates, you may suffer withdrawal symptoms, which can feel worse than a severe flu.

Opioid withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Aches
  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Chills
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea/vomiting

The effects of opioids on your body over time can also result in other health problems. Long-term opioid use can lead to problems with the digestive and reproductive systems and other conditions.

How Opioids Affect the Body

Because opioids slow breathing, high doses can stop breathing or prevent oxygen from getting to the brain and other vital organs, risking organ damage or death. Opioids also slow down the digestive system, causing severe nausea and constipation, increasing the risk of serious bowel problems and related illnesses. Opioids can also cause you to lose control of your physical movements and coordination.

Strangely enough, opioid painkillers can have the opposite effect of what they’re made for: You can develop something called hyperalgesia, which makes you more sensitive to pain, according to an article published in Current Pharmaceutical Design. For this reason, opiates are usually not the best choice for chronic pain conditions, and are better suited for treating acute and time-limited pain, such as post-surgical pain or bone fractures.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 115 people in the U.S. die every day from an opioid overdose.

If you need prescription opioids for acute, severe pain, only take them under strict supervision from your doctor and for the shortest possible time. Being informed about the effects of opioids on the body can protect you and your loved ones from negative outcomes.

For more information about the effects of opioid use, or to discuss opioid problems with an expert, contact the UPMC Addiction Medicine Program.