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Opioid Addiction

Opioid addiction is diagnosed by treatment professionals as opioid use disorder (OUD)—a condition that nearly 3 million people were estimated to have struggled with in the United States in 2020.1 Opioids are a broad class of substances that include many narcotic pain medications. When used as directed, prescription opioids can be useful in relieving moderate to severe pain. However, opioid misuse can increase the risk of addiction and other adverse health effects, including overdoses and death.2, 4
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What Are Opioids?

Opioids include naturally occurring substances derived from the opium poppy plant (including morphine and codeine), semi-synthetic medications derived from naturally occurring opiates (such as hydrocodone and oxycodone), and fully synthetic substances (drugs like fentanyl) that resemble naturally occurring opioids in chemical structure or pharmacologic function.2, 4 Though prescription opioids are useful medications for pain management, their ability to cause euphoric effects increases the potential for misuse.2, 6 Misuse occurs when a person takes opioids other than prescribed, without a prescription, or to get high.2

What Is Opioid Addiction?

Opioid addiction or, in diagnostic terms, an opioid use disorder, involves the continued, compulsive misuse of opioid drugs despite the negative impact such use has on a person’s life.5, 8 OUD and other drug addictions develop in association with certain lasting brain changes, which are thought to lead to some of the harmful behaviors that develop to support continued drug misuse.4

Effects of Opioids

In addition to their beneficial effects for pain relief, opioids have several potential side effects, including:4, 7

  • A rewarding euphoria, which could reinforce problematic use.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Loss of consciousness (i.e., nodding off).
  • Slurred speech.
  • Impaired attention and memory.
  • Mental confusion.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Constipation.
  • Slower breathing than normal.
  • Coma.

Treatment for Opioid Addiction

Treatment for an OUD should be individualized but often includes a combination of behavioral therapy and medication.10 One of the most widely used behavioral approaches for treating OUD includes cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help people change their behaviors and thoughts about drug use.11 Both behavioral therapy and medication-based treatment can be given in various settings, including inpatient and outpatient rehab.

Medical detoxification is also an important part of the early treatment process for OUD and involves close patient supervision and medications to safely and comfortably manage acute opioid withdrawal.12

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