Opiates are drugs that act on the nervous system to relieve pain. The drug can come in many forms through tablets, capsules or liquid. Opiates abuse is a growing epidemic that has caused the deaths of over 33,000 people alone in 2015.
Prescription medications is a spark plug in the growing epidemic as it is being increasingly abused (used in ways other than intended or without a prescription). Even with a prescription, certain opiates are so powerful that it leads to new people becoming addicted after being prescribed. Opiates are often prescribed for pain relief. Commonly prescribed opiates include hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin®), oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin®), morphine, fentanyl, and codeine. In the United States, more people now die from opiate painkiller overdoses than from heroin and cocaine combined. In 2012 there were 259 million prescriptions for painkillers, such as Vicodin, OxyContin, and Opana, that were written in the U.S. While 467,000 people in the U.S. struggled with heroin addiction in 2012, over 2 million were estimated to abuse opiate painkillers.
Here is a breakdown of how opiates effects the body and why it is such a deadly drug.
Abuse of opiates, whether prescription painkillers or heroin, can have a serious impact on your health. In addition to the hazards of overdosing on opiate painkillers, sharing needles for the injection of heroin or any other substances poses even more risks. These substances and practices can affect almost every part of your body, potentially leading to permanent damage to your health.
The Nervous System
Ironically, the chronic use of opiate painkillers can lead to the development of hyperalgesia, a syndrome that makes you more sensitive to pain. Opiate use is also associated with psychomotor impairment, an overall slowing of a person’s physical movements and loss of coordination.
Opiate painkillers are known to induce a feeling of sleepiness. Heroin use can cause profound drowsiness as well, with abusers frequently ‘nodding off’ as they slip in and out of consciousness. The long-term use of painkillers is also found to be associated with a heightened risk of developing major depression: Patients using painkillers in excess of six months had more than a 50 percent greater chance of developing a depressive state.
The Respiratory System
Overdosing on opiate painkillers or heroin can lead to respiratory depression, a slowing of breathing. At sufficient doses, respiratory arrest can deprive the brain and body tissues of oxygen. This can easily prove fatal, or result in debilitating organ system injury. Famous rapper, Lil Wayne suffered a few seizures and almost died from the use of cough syrup, which is a codeine based substance.
If a person abuses painkillers to the point of becoming comatose, he can suffer severe and life-threatening injuries that has no direct relation to the respiratory suppression effect of the drugs. A condition called “rhabdomyolysis” can occur. This is a rapid breakdown of muscle tissue that results from a person lying completely immobilized for a number of hours.
The Immune System
Opiate abuse can inhibit immune response which can make users more susceptible to infection. Opiate painkillers are known to be associated with suppression of the immune system, as opioid receptors are involved with regulation of immunity.
People who abuse opiates (prescription pain relievers (OxyContin, Vicodin, etc.), heroin and morphine) disrupt the body’s natural balance of pain management chemicals. These natural chemicals include endogenous opioids: endorphin and encephalin. In addition to disrupting natural opioids, opiate use also disrupts dopamine levels. The body relies on natural production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls movement, memory, decision-making and desire, to know when to release white blood cells. While scientists still study the exact cause of immune system disruption, people have observed for centuries the association between opiates and the increased risk of infection and cancer. The connection between infection and opiate use is particularly strong for morphine, heroin and similar prescription pain relievers. People who abuse opiates are at a higher risk of developing the following conditions:
- Skin lesions
- Heart disease
- Bacterial infections
Opiate painkillers are commonly used in combination with acetaminophen. Excessive use of these drugs can cause liver failure from acetaminophen toxicity.
Adding alcohol to the mix , as many opiate abusers do, makes an already risky situation worse. It further decreases the liver’s ability to process the toxic combination of ethanol and acetaminophen. It’s safe to assume that no one embarks upon opiate abuse with the intention of experiencing painful and serious liver damage, but the risks are quite real.
Damage to the liver from acetaminophen toxicity is an undeniable risk of taking excessive doses of many prescription painkillers such as Lortab, Norco and Vicodin.
Opiates are very well known for causing constipation, even if taken as recommended from a doctor. Opiates affect the muscles of the digestive system, leading to constipation due to a slowing of digestive transit. Chronic constipation associated with opiate abuse can also place users at heightened risk for more serious conditions, such as small bowel obstruction, perforation and resultant peritonitis. Nausea also occurs frequently in many users of opiates, along with sudden, uncontrollable vomiting.
Illegal street drugs such as heroin are frequently diluted and may contain contaminating and infectious particles. When heroin is injected the risk of contamination can lead to infections entering the blood and reaching the lining of the heart, causing endocarditis, an inflammation of this lining. As street heroin is usually cut with any number of impurities, these contaminating particles can travel through the body and become trapped in small capillaries, resulting in micro-embolism or clots, which can cut off blood flow and cause progressive damage to various organs. Opiate abuse can lead to inflammation, infection and abscess formation at the site of injection. Repeated injections can also lead to cumulative vein damage, which may eventually cause a user’s veins to collapse.
Sharing needles during the injection of heroin or crushed pills can spread a number of blood borne pathogens, including the hepatitis C virus. Hepatitis C is one of the largest causes of chronic liver disease as well as the lung infection tuberculosis. Another concern is the spread of HIV, and drug users that inject such harmful substances are one of the highest risk groups for the transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The scary thing is that opiate painkillers are accessible without a prescription, and the fact that it is becoming popular among younger people. Just because it is supposedly legal does not make it better than drugs you get in the streets. Whether legal or illegal, addiction can happen if these drugs are taken in large doses or for prolonged periods of time. It is important to intervenes or get the help necessary if you or someone you know is struggling with opiate abuse. There are plenty of rehab programs and N/A meetings that can help put individuals on the right path towards recovery.