What are opiates, and what makes them dangerous?

You might have heard about the “opiate crisis.” Maybe you’ve even had someone in your life struggle from opiate addiction. But you also know that opiates are often prescribed by doctors.

How could a prescription medication come with so many issues?

The answer lies in understanding what opiates are, and how the mechanism of addiction works. In this guide, we’ll help you understand what you need to know about opiates and addiction.

Keep reading to learn how to keep yourself and your loved ones safe from this issue.

What are Opiates?

You’ll probably hear the words “opiate” and “opioid” used to mean the same thing. However, they actually do have slightly different meanings and uses. What is an opioid, and what are opiates?

The term “opioid” got its start in referring to synthetic products that mimicked the effects of opium. However, today, opioids mean any and all substances that simulate opium or are derived from the plant.

Opiates, on the other hand, are the drugs that are derived directly from the opium plant. Still, people often use these terms interchangeably, because the effects are very much the same. Whether synthetic or natural, opioids and opiates are seriously addictive and come with a number of concerning side effects.

Opiates are often prescribed for acute pain relief in medical settings. However, when people use these drugs over a long period of time (even with a prescription), they can easily become addicted. This leads to drug abuse. People who started with prescription drugs will often start seeking out illegal street opioids once they’ve become addicted.

Some of the most common prescription opioids are oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, and Dilaudid. The most well-known illegal opioid is heroin.

Societal Effects of Opiate Abuse

Opiate and opioid addiction is the top cause of drug overdoses in America. You might be surprised to learn that prescription painkillers cause the most deaths, followed by heroin. Just because it’s available by prescription doesn’t mean it’s safe.

Opiate addiction is a serious disease, and it can destroy lives if it’s not treated. There is no known cure for this addiction, but rehab centers can help addicts go on to lead healthy, normal lives.

What Do Opiates Do?

These drugs, which come from or mimic the opium plant, are very effective for treating pain.

Opium was first cultivated many millennia ago, so it’s hardly new for human consumption. As merchants learned about the plant, it spread around the world and was used by many civilizations for its painkilling properties and recreational high.

Its other uses over the years included inducing sleep and treating coughs. Doctors discovered that they could extract substances from the plant and apply it to various medical uses.

In short, as long as people have been cultivating opium, they’ve been using it as medicine and to get high. Today, as a medicine, it’s intended to treat pain ranging from moderate to severe. Opium derivatives are often prescribed after surgeries or other serious medical procedures.

What Do Opiates Look Like?

Not sure if you’d recognized an opiate or opioid if you saw one? You’re probably right – they can come in many different forms.

The prescription drugs generally come in the form of a pill. These pills often also have milder painkillers like aspirin or acetaminophen, and the different pill colors can tell you how strong it is. You might see yellow, blue, peach, or pink opiate pills.

However, people don’t always take these pills as recommended once they’re addicted. A common practice is to crush up the pills and snort them for a faster, more intense high. People might also chew up the pills, or dissolve crushed pills in water so they can inject them.

Instead of pills, an addict might have a bag of crushed powder instead. Heroin, the most common illegal opiate, can also come in the form of white or brownish powder, or a sticky, black, tar-like substance.

What Makes Opiates So Addictive?

Opiates are known as one of the most addictive drugs out there – but why?

When someone takes an opiate, in any form, the drug travels through the bloodstream until it reaches the brain. This floods the brain with dopamine and endorphins that mimic our natural endorphins. These neurotransmitters provide us with feelings like pleasure and satisfaction.

The result is a euphoric rush of happiness that’s more intense than anything our brain can do on its own. The only way to achieve that high again is by using the drug again. But when the drug is used over and over again, the brain no longer can make the same amount of endorphins and dopamine. It develops a tolerance, so the drug doesn’t have the same effect.

The person will continue to crave that unnatural high, even as it becomes harder to get. They might start taking higher doses of the drugs in order to get the same feeling again.

Opiate Dependence

During this process, they start to develop a physical dependence as well as a tolerance. If someone stops taking opiates after they’ve been abusing them, they’ll go into withdrawal, because the body is used to having the drug. The withdrawals can be medically serious.

Along with physical dependence comes psychological dependence. There’s a mental craving for the drug, as well as a physical craving.

Most addicts don’t think they’ll become addicts when they start. They might have been given a prescription following a surgery or tried an illegal drug on someone’s recommendation. But opiates can quickly take hold over the brain and body, making it difficult to break away from using them.

Breaking the Cycle of Opiate Addiction

If you or someone you know is going through this addiction cycle or is at risk of getting started, it’s time to take action. Now that you know how to answer “What are opiates?” you know what to watch out for and how to stay safe.

We have treatment programs that can help at any stage of addiction. Contact us to learn more.