Signs, Treatment, & Prevention Of Opioid Abuse


Opioids have become a focal point of the current epidemic of drug overdoses due to their highly addictive nature and relative ease of access to them.

These pain relievers can result in opioid use disorder (OUD) when administered at higher or more frequent doses, which causes both physical and psychological opioid dependence.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse, we understand that seeking help from a qualified professional can be intimidating. At, a highly skilled network of telemedicine healthcare practitioners can help get you started on your journey to recovery. Book an appointment today.

And to learn more about opioid abuse and how to spot the signs, keep reading.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs that affect certain receptors in the nervous system, providing pain relief and sedation. They’re used as painkillers and sedatives after sustaining a major injury or having surgery. They can also be used to medicate chronic pain, and some more potent forms of them are used in palliative or end-of-life care.

What Is Opioid Abuse?

Opioid abuse is described as an unhealthy pattern of using opioids without consulting a healthcare professional, leading to adverse physical and psychological effects that include opioid addiction.

This entails taking higher doses of the prescription opioid or taking it more frequently than prescribed. It also manifests as illogical, illegal, or dangerous drug-seeking behavior.

Just like other cases of substance or drug abuse, it is a chronic disorder that can lead to disability, relapse, or in some cases, death due to an opioid overdose.

How to Spot Opioid Abuse

Opioid abuse is a form of substance use disorder that can be detected by healthcare professionals and diagnosed by a mental health practitioner. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) describes it as “a problematic pattern of opioid use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress.”

Diagnosing opioid abuse or OUD is done by confirming two of the following symptoms in a 12-month period:

Symptoms of Opioid Use Disorder

  • Using opioids for a longer period than intended or taking a larger dose.
  • Continuous desire to use opioids and inability to cut down or stop using them even after attempting to do so.
  • Opioid cravings, or having a strong need to use them.
  • Spending a lot of time trying to obtain, use, or recover from the drugs.
  • Failing to fulfill obligations at school, work, or home because of the effects of opioids.
  • Not stopping opioid use even when adverse effects on personal and professional relationships arise because of it.
  • Avoiding important social, professional, or recreational activities to continue using opioids.
  • Putting oneself in physical danger to continue using opioids.
  • Ignoring signs of mental, physical, and psychological harm that are clearly the result of opioid abuse.
  • Developing physical tolerance to the drugs, which means that the same doses have a much lower effect than usual, and you need a higher dose to achieve the same effect.
  • Experiencing opioid withdrawal symptoms when attempting to quit the drugs, or taking opioids to avoid experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

Opioid Withdrawal Syndrome

Opioid dependence isn’t just psychological, it also has a physical element due to the depressive effect of the drugs on the nervous system. Opioids lower the body’s temperature, “dry out” saliva and tears, and cause constipation.

The body tends to mitigate these depressive effects by regulating its temperature, increasing its secretions, and making the bowels move faster.

Opioid withdrawal symptoms occur due to the physical effects of the opioids being reversed and usually resemble flu symptoms. They’re objectively insignificant, but the patient might experience them in a more severe manner.

These symptoms include:

  • Increased sweating
  • Increased tear production and salivation
  • A runny nose
  • Goosebumps (piloerection)
  • Dilated pupils
  • Irritability
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Severe diarrhea
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Yawning

What Causes Opioid Abuse?

Prescribing opioids was a relatively rare practice among doctors up until the 1990s. That’s when advocates for better pain management and pharmaceutical companies lobbied for easier access to opioids, like hydrocodone, oxycodone, and hydromorphone.

Unfortunately, with a higher number of opioid prescriptions, the number of patients who experience opioid abuse is increasing. People with smaller injuries or moderate chronic pain who develop a dependence on prescription opioids or experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit can end up with opioid use disorder (OUD).

Another alarming trend is that when patients lose access to prescription opioids once they become dependent on them, they usually turn to “street drugs” to sustain the same high. These include potent synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, or semi-synthetic opioids, like heroin.

However, these drugs result in a high percentage of drug overdose deaths as patients struggle with controlling their doses. Opioid overdoses on prescriptions and illicit drugs reached an alarming rate in the past 20 years, ushering in the current opioid crisis in the U.S.

How Is Opioid Abuse Treated and Prevented?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers some helpful guidelines to healthcare providers for treating opioid abuse and opioid use disorders, which include:

  • Using a prescription medication, such as buprenorphine, in treating the physical withdrawal symptoms and opioid cravings the patient might experience.
  • Working with a mental health practitioner to address the psychological issues that led the patient to opioid addiction.
  • Allowing patients at a high risk of opioid overdose access to naltrexone, a life-saving medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. It’s more accessible in the form of a nasal spray, but can also be given as an injection.

As for prevention of opioid abuse, the following efforts are being undertaken by the federal government:

  • Working with state-level public health departments to raise awareness about the opioid overdose epidemic health statistics and the inherent risks of using opioids recreationally.
  • Providing access to prevention, treatment, and recovery support services to patients addicted to opioids.
  • Cutting the supply of and raising awareness about fentanyl, often found in counterfeit pills and other controlled substances, and the potential danger of overdose.
  • Monitoring practices’ adherence to the guidelines presented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding prescribing opioids to patients experiencing severe pain or chronic conditions, to avoid instances of opioid misuse and abuse.

These measures can drastically reduce the number of opioid-involved overdose deaths as the opioid epidemic hopefully dwindles. A good first step is the overall reduction in the number of opioid prescriptions, which is currently at its lowest rate in the past 20 years.

How Opioid Misuse Can Lead To Overdose

Opioid overdoses are the direct result of one of the following scenarios of opioid misuse:

  • Using an illegal drug, like heroin, and accidentally taking a high dose.
  • Taking too many prescription opioid pills either accidentally or intentionally. Patients over 65 and those with disabilities are at a higher risk of an accidental opioid overdose.
  • Mixing opioids with other substances, such as alcohol, anxiety, or sleep prescription medications.
  • Taking someone else’s prescription opioids. This is a common reason for accidental overdoses in children, as they reach for and consume opioids prescribed for one of their family members.
  • Overdosing on buprenorphine, naloxone, or methadone, which are drugs used in opioid addiction treatment.


Opioid abuse is a highly prevalent phenomenon in the United States, with the number of patients skyrocketing in the past 30 years. It leaves a devastating trail of broken lives and overdose deaths that could have been prevented.

Abusing prescription drugs, especially highly addictive opioids, can also be a gateway for using other illicit substances. Many people struggling with heroin use started out abusing oxycodone and hydrocodone that was prescribed to them after a tooth extraction or for chronic back pain.

If you or a person you care about are struggling with substance abuse, then it’s crucial to reach out for a helping hand before it’s too late. At, highly-trained telemedicine doctors will answer your questions and keep you accountable on your journey to full recovery. Take the assessment to find out if you need assistance.


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