Opiate-based medications have been around for over a century. They are an important tool in fighting pain, but unfortunately, have a great potential for addiction. In order to help those suffering from opiate addiction, the drug itself must first be understood.

Opiates are drugs that are morphine based medications. They are all derived, whether synthetically or naturally, from the poppy flower. They are commonly prescribed by doctors for both acute and chronic pain management. Although opiates are excellent pain relievers, they also have serious side effects and can become physically and mentally addictive for many people.

Opiates work by releasing dopamine from neurons in the brain. Dopamine is a “feel-good” neurotransmitter, meaning it makes the brain and body feel good. It also relieves the perception of pain by flooding the brain with dopamine and endorphins. This process produces a euphoric sensation in the person, giving the person an incredible sense of happiness and well being. Over time, the body begins to develop a tolerance to the medication, needing more of the drug to produce the same effects. As tolerance to the drug goes up, the body begins to develop a physical dependence on the opiate. If the opiate is stopped abruptly, the person will experience the devastating effects of withdrawal.

One of the dangerous side effects of opiate-based medications is the suppression of the breathing instinct. When patients are given morphine in hospital settings, they are monitored closely to ensure they do not experience respiratory distress or arrest. When high doses of opiates are taken in home settings, people can stop breathing because they lose their instinct to breathe. This is when deaths from overdose occur.

There are many different types of opiates. Doctors can prescribe opiates for pain which include Percocet, Vicodin, Oxycontin, and fentanyl. The dosage and the method of delivery can be adjusted according to the type of pain felt and whether it is a chronic or acute injury or illness causing it. Unfortunately, because of the highly addictive nature of these types of medications, many people become addicted to them unwittingly without knowing the danger involved. When doctors refuse to continue to prescribe these medications due to overuse or suspicious behavior, patients will turn to other means of obtaining them. Opiates in pill form tend to cost more illegally and so many people turn to cheaper forms of opiates to avoid withdrawal, like heroin.

Heroin is a street drug that can be snorted, smoked, or injected. It is quite dangerous for users for a few reasons. Drug dealers often mix heroin with other substances which can be unhealthy and dangerous to ingest. Recently, drug dealers have been mixing heroin with another powerful narcotic called fentanyl.

Fentanyl is an opiate based drug prescribed by doctors for intractable pain, like the pain experienced with terminal cancers. It is often administered with a dermal patch to patients who need it, but drug dealers have been cutting up small pieces of the patch and mixing it with heroin to produce a powerful and dangerous high. The rise of drug overdose deaths in many cases has been attributed to this practice.

While heroin itself can be dangerous, the method of injecting the drug poses a great health risk itself. Many heroin addicts do not have access to clean, sterile needles and end up using and sharing contaminated needles. These lead to infections, abscesses, and the transmission of bloodborne diseases like hepatitis and HIV.

Withdrawal occurs when the body becomes physically dependent on opiates. The body cannot function or feel normal unless the drug is present. Effects of withdrawal from opiates can be severe and include profuse sweating, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, fever, body aches, and tremors. Withdrawal also produces an intense craving for the drug. One of the reasons opiates are so addictive is that the withdrawal and sickness felt when people try to stop taking them are so painful.

Opiate addiction affects families and friends of loved ones from all walks of life. No one is immune to the disease of addiction, but it can be treated successfully. Drug addiction is most successfully treated with a combination of medication, counseling, and 12 step programs.

Methadone is the medication most often associated with opiate addiction treatment. It is itself an opioid, but it administered in a long-acting dosage. It activates the same receptors in the brain that are used to other opiates but does not produce the euphoric feeling other opiates do. It prevents withdrawal symptoms and can be tapered down over time so that eventually the person is free from addiction.

Suboxone is a newer medication used to treat opiate addiction. Like methadone, it acts on opioid receptors, lessening symptoms of withdrawal and gradually allowing the addict to stop abusing opiates.

While medications are a powerful addition to the arsenal used to combat drug addiction, counseling and groups like narcotics anonymous are necessary adjuncts to medication. Many times, people have become addicted to opiates for long periods of time. They need help to learn how to live a life free from drug dependence. Therapy and counseling coupled with medication-based therapies are imperative for recovering from drug addiction. Recovering addicts need guidance and help from others to achieve the goal of long-term sobriety. Often times, people attempt to detox at home from opiate-based medications and end up giving up. This is because the withdrawal symptoms and intense physical cravings can be overwhelming for someone on their own. This is why detox in a medical facility with trained personnel is important.

Opiate addiction not only affects the lives of those suffering from the addiction but also for friends and loved ones. It is an insidious addiction, with lasting effects. With the right tools and medical personnel to help, drug addiction can be alleviated and former addicts can go on to live healthy, drug-free lives.