Opiates: What Makes Them So Addictive?

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Opiates are drugs that come from the opium poppy. They include drugs like fentanyl, morphine, and codeine. These chemicals are very effective in reducing pain, but they also carry risks of addiction – even when used to treat short-term pain.

This paradox has led scientists to wonder whether opiate addiction is a disease at all or whether addiction is an unintended side effect of using opiate painkillers to treat chronic pain.

What Is Opioid Addiction?

Opioid-use disorder is a condition where someone becomes dependent on opiate painkillers even if they only took them for short-term physical pain or therapeutic reasons such as relieving the pain of cancer. Although no test can determine whether someone has this condition, it is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association.

Researchers believe that people who suffer from opioid-use disorder become dependent on opiates after taking them for a long time. However, these people may have different physiologies that lead to the onset of addiction.

Chronic pain caused by an accident or surgery can become so severe that patients turn to opiate painkillers for relief, but this doesn’t always mean they are at risk of developing an opioid-use disorder.

It’s not yet clear whether the same risk factors apply to both conditions, but researchers believe that someone’s genetics may play a vital role. Many studies already focus on gene variations that may predict how the bodies will produce or respond to opioid receptors. In 2021, a Middle Eastern study found a gene that could be a risk factor among Jordanian males.

People who don’t have these risk factors may still become addicted if they use opiate painkillers for a long time and take higher than prescribed doses.

Researchers believe that people who use opiates for a longer period may develop tolerance because their bodies adapt to the effects of the drug, causing them to take higher doses without realizing it. Higher doses activate neurons in certain areas of the brain that produce feelings of euphoria when stimulated, leading people to develop an addiction.

Signs of an Opiate Addiction and How to Get Help for It
man melting chemicals and medicine to make drugs

People who become addicted to opiates may display certain signs that indicate abuse or addiction.

Opiates are often used by addicts alongside other drugs, particularly alcohol. Someone who drinks more than the recommended amount of alcohol regularly may be abusing opiate painkillers too because they can trigger cravings for opioids in some people.

People who abuse opiate painkillers and alcohol may display the following symptoms:

  • Using more opiates or taking them for longer than necessary
  • Developing a tolerance to opiate painkillers
  • Withdrawal symptoms when they don’t take opiates (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea)
  • Taking higher doses of opioids than they once did
  • Feeling sick without opioids

Someone with opioid addiction can develop a substance-use disorder, which is defined as having four or more of the following symptoms within a 12-month period:

  • Taking opioids in larger amounts or for longer than you wanted to
  • Wanting to cut down or stop taking opiates but being unable to
  • Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from opiate use
  • Craving opioids
  • Failing to fulfill responsibilities at home, work, school, or other obligations because of opioid

Treating Opioid Addiction

Opioids affect the parts of the brain that control a person’s memory and ability to learn, so someone to opiates may not be able to quit without help.

It can be dangerous for people with an addiction to stop taking their medications all of sudden because they can experience withdrawal symptoms that trigger intense cravings. People who have been using opiate painkillers for a long time are particularly at risk of overdose because their bodies have become dependent on these medications.

However, several opioid addiction treatment programs can help addicts overcome their problems with substance abuse and regain control of their mental and physical well-being.

1. Detoxification

Opiate detox is a necessary first step that involves taking a lower dose of opioids under medical supervision to reduce the risk of severe withdrawal symptoms.

2. Medications

Some people may need medication to help them overcome an opiate addiction because they have a hard time overcoming cravings without it. Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist that can reduce withdrawal symptoms and ease addicts’ cravings for stronger drugs, making it easier for them to resist relapse.

3. Behavioural Therapy

Behavioural therapy can help people with an opioid addiction overcome mental and emotional problems that may have prompted them to abuse drugs in the first place. It can also teach recovering addicts new coping skills, so they don’t feel tempted to use again.

4. 12-Step Programmes

Many people find support through 12-step programmes dedicated to helping people overcome drug addiction. These programmes offer a supportive environment for addicts as they work to regain their lives and recover from substance abuse.

5. Other Therapies

Alternative therapies such as acupuncture can help treat opiate addiction by reducing pain, stress, and anxiety that may trigger cravings for opioids. Yoga is another alternative treatment that can lower stress and anxiety, promoting a healthy body and mind.


Opiates are addictive substances that can have harmful effects on a person’s health and life. People who abuse opiate painkillers may display some symptoms listed above. However, with opioid addiction treatment programmes to help them overcome their problems with substance abuse, people can recover from opioid addiction and regain control of their lives.

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