Can you get addicted to opiates?

Yes, you can get addicted to opiates. An in-depth look at opiate drugs, their addiction potential, and ways to avoid it.

minute read

Yes, you can get addicted!

Are you struggling with a problem related to a pain medicine?

You are not alone.

In fact, many people start taking opiates as part of a prescribed pain management plan. Slowly, the potential risk of addiction can outweigh the benefit of the medicine. Other times, people purposely use opiates to achieve feelings of sedation, relaxation, and euphoria. What’s important to know is that either of these routes can lead to opiate addiction.

So, how can you know if you’ve developed an addiction to opiates? In this article, we explain more about opiate use, the addictive potential of this class of drugs, and signs of addiction. Then, we suggest ways that you can prevent the development of a substance use problem.

At the end of the article, we welcome you to send us your questions. We do our best to review your real life questions. In fact, we try to provide personal and prompt responses to all legitimate inquiries…simply, we are here to help!

Are you sick and tired of being sick and tired with opiates?
Call 1-877-721-2951 NOW.
You deserve to live addiction-free!

Opiates for medical treatment

Opiates are a group of psychoactive drugs derived from extracts of the poppy plant: morphine and codeine. The best known types of opiates include heroin, oxycodone, and hydrocodone. Some opiates are prescribed for the medical treatment of pain, while others are illicit drugs with no medical use. Why do people use them?

Opiates are used for several reasons, including:

  • surpression of severe cough
  • treatment of severe pain after surgery
  • treatment of chronic (long-lasting) pain
  • treatment of acute (severe) pain

Prescription opiates usually come in the form of tablets, capsules, or liquid and are used to dull pain. When taken as directed by a medical professional opiates are safe and can reduce pain effectively. When misused or abused, painkillers can cause dependence and addiction.

Types of opiates

Illicit opiates are drugs include those banned by international drug control treaties, and include:

  • heroin
  • opium

The most widely used diverted pharmaceutical opioids (generic and brand names) are included in the following list:

  • Codeine
  • Diphenoxylate (Lomotil)
  • Fentanyl (Duragesic)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Meperidine (Demerol)
  • Methadone
  • (Dolophine, Methadose)
  • Morphine (Kadian, Avinza, MS Contin)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percodan, Percocet)
  • Propoxyphene (Darvon)

What do opiates do in the body?

Opiates can be administered:

  1. Orally as a pill, capsule, or liquid
  2. Intravenously via needle
  3. Crushed and snorted

Once administered in the body via these different routes, opiates are metabolized and enter the bloodstream. Then, these chemicals cross the blood-brain barrier to bind to opiate receptors in the central nervous system (the brain, spinal cord, and other nervous system tissue). Once attached to the receptor, opiates start sending signals to block pain, slow breathing, and produce calming and anti-depressing effects.

The ability of opiates to activate receptors is due to their chemical structure, which matches the chemical structure of natural neurotransmitters in the central nervous system. This structure can practically “fool” receptors and allows opiates to bind and activate the nerve cells.

Opiates also affect the brain’s “reward system” and stimulate the production of excessive amounts of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that regulates several brain functions such as:

  • cognition
  • emotions
  • pleasure
  • movement
  • motivation

The overstimulation of the reward system creates a sudden euphoric rush. The brain has a tendency to crave and repeat the activities that produce pleasure and reward…and this is how addiction is formed.

Take an opiate.

Feel great.

Feel no pain.


The development of addiction

Addiction is not a sudden occurrence. In fact, it usually takes time to develop. While each person’s experience is unique, many people find that regular dosing of an opiate after a period of few weeks or more results in physical dependence. Psychological dependence can develop immediately, or can occur after several weeks or months of dosing.

What are the physical and psychological changes that lead to the development of the disease that clinicians call “addiction”?

First PHYSICAL DEPENDENCE. You can know you are dependent on an opiate when you start to experience withdrawal symptoms upon lowering your usual dose or completely ceasing use in an abrupt manner. Dependence usually occurs after the first few weeks of regular, daily dosing.

Simultaneously, TOLERANCE, which means you need more and more of the opiate to achieve the wanted effects. People make mistakes when they start increasing doses of their medications or take them more frequently than suggested by a doctor. Tolerance to opiates is highly individual. Some people develop tolerance quickly. Others develop tolerance over time.

Finally, ADDICTION occurs. Addiction is considered to be a primary, chronic, neurobiologic disease. It is characterized by a compulsive and uncontrollable need for opiates and is almost always related to a deeper emotional or psychological hurt. People tend to take opiates to manage emotional pain, deal with traumatic events, and take control over any turmoil in life, as well as physical pain. Addiction can develop of the course of days, weeks, or years.

Who’s at greater risk of addiction?

There are a multitude of factors that may influence whether a person will be at greater risk of developing an addition to opiates. These include:

Genetics. Individuals who have a close relative or a parent who has an addiction to opiates or another substance face a greater risk of developing an addiction later in life. In fact, scientists attribute up to 50% of the risk for opiate addiction to your individual genetics make up. But still, not all people who use will turn to abuse or become addicted. Ultimately, addiction is influenced by many additional factors.

Brain chemistry. Some individuals are born with a malfunction in the way the reward system of the brain functions. An easy way to understand this is that some of us are born with the extreme sensitivity to dopamine influencing drugs. In fact, people who are prone to addiction may get “higher” than others who take the same drugs. These individuals may grow to rely upon substances such as opiates that stimulate the pleasure center of the brain.

Environment. People who grow up in a home or community in which substance use is present, it is likely that they might also view substance abuse as a normal way to cope with everyday stresses and emotional pain.

Psychology and mental health issues. Some individuals struggle for many years to control the symptoms of an undiagnosed or undertreated mental illness. Some examples of this include Bipolar Disorder, Depression, or Anxiety. In order to cope with distressing symptoms, some may turn to substances such as opiates to self-medicate the symptoms of the mental illness.

Personal medical history. In addition, if a person has a history of substance use issues, including alcohol, their chances for developing an addiction to opiates is higher.

Trauma.Early childhood trauma such as pre-adolescent sexual abuse, or any other type of abuse can increase the likelihood of drug addiction. Likewise, men and women who have been to war are at higher risk for developing Substance Use Disorders, as are people who work in First Responder jobs (police, firefighters, security, paramedics) with high levels of stress over time.

Signs of opiate addiction

There are ways you can tell if you or a loved one have started to develop a problem with opiate drugs. Some signs are physical and may be obvious. Other signs can be behavioral and more difficult to detect. The main sign? Continuing to use opiates despite negative consequences. Here are some of the key ways you can recognize a problem with an opiate.

Physical signs and symptoms:

  1. Abusing opiate medications (crushing, snorting, smoking or injecting).
  2. Signs of use including dilated pupils, sedation, or slowed breathing.
  3. Physical craving for opiates.
  4. Increasing dose amounts or frequencies in order to get the same initial effect.
  5. Extreme mood swings, sleeping problems, or issues with weight.

Behavioral signs and symptoms:

  1. Running out of medications before it’s time for a prescription refill.
  2. Doctor shopping (going to multiple doctors in order to obtain opioid prescriptions)
  3. Prioritizing the use of opiates over other important obligations at home, work, school.
  4. Purchasing opiates through illicit channels, on the street, or through the internet.

REMEMBER: Recognizing these signs of opiate addiction is not something to be ashamed of. In fact, they may signal that you need to seek professional help regarding a drug problem. After all, addiction is a medical condition that can be treated medically. Getting over the fear can be as easy a making one phone call to reach out for help from a compassionate listener.


Ready to quit opiates RIGHT NOW?
Call 1-877-721-2951.
Free and Confidential help is available 24/7.


Addiction prevention

If you carefully follow your doctor’s instructions on how to take your painkiller medication, the chances of becoming addicted are lower. Following doctors’ orders is truly beneficial. Why? Because each medication is prescribed in amounts and forms that are considered appropriate and safe for you.

However, addiction is rarely predictable. For this reason, you should communicate any issues or concerns with your doctor. Here are some other tips that can help.

TIP 1: Consult your doctor if you think you’re developing tolerance. S/He may recommend a brief taper or even cessation of dosing.

TIP 2: Avoid combining opiates with alcohol, antihistamines, anti-anxiety drugs, and sleep aids. The depressant effects of combined drugs are enhanced and multiplied when you take two drugs at the same time.

TIP 3: Report a history of substance abuse in yourself or a family member or an addictive personality…BEFORE you start taking an opiate drug. This way, you can mitigate risk TOGETHER.

TIP 4: Report any of the warning signs of addiction – especially euphoric effect – to your doctor. Honesty is the number one factor to preventing an addiction…or catching it in its early stages.

Still have questions?

If we haven’t answered your question(s) about opiate addiction, please post them in the comments section below. We welcome your questions and try to respond personally and promptly. In case we don’t know the response to your question, we will refer you to professionals who can help.

Reference sources: NIDA: Prescription Pain Medications
FDA: Opioid Medications
NIH: Prescription Drug Abuse
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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