Opioids: Everything you need to know about the uses and dangers of opioids!

Published Jun 26, 2023 • By Polina Kochetkova

Due to its ability to relieve pain, opioids have been used extensively in medicine for ages. But its abuse and addiction have created a worldwide narcotics issue that has harmed countless people and families. Today, we talk about the uses and dangers of opioids. 

How are opioids used in the medical field? What dangers do opioids have? Why is the opioid crisis a global concern? 

Keep reading to find out!

Opioids: Everything you need to know about the uses and dangers of opioids!

How do opioids work and when are they used? 

Opioids are a group of strong medications that are typically administered to treat intense pain. They work by interacting with certain receptors in the brain and spinal cord to change how pain is perceived. Opioid receptors, which are mostly present in the central nervous system (CNS), are what opioids attach to, blocking the sensations of pain. 

Some of the prescription opioid medications are:  

Opioids are most frequently used for pain reduction in a variety of therapeutic contexts, including treatment of acute and chronic pain. When treating severe pain that does not respond to conventional analgesics, these drugs are extremely effectiveHowever, because of the risk of dependency, tolerance, and addiction, their usage should be closely supervised. 

Some of the cases when opioids can be used include: 

  • Surgical Procedures: To manage pain and guarantee patient comfort, opioids are commonly given prior to, during, or after surgical operations. Depending on the kind of operation, they may be administered via an IV, intramuscularly, or epidurally. 

  • Extreme Trauma and Emergency Care: Opioids may be used in critical situations to manage acute pain brought on by traumatic injuries or severe medical conditions. To balance the advantages of opioids with potential dangers and side effects, caution is necessary. 

  • Pain associated with cancer: People with advanced cancer frequently feel excruciating pain that dramatically lowers their quality of life. Opioids are frequently recommended to relieve cancer-related pain and improve patient well-being. They come in immediate-release and extended-release varieties. 

  • Terminal care: Opioids are essential for managing difficult symptoms such as excruciating pain, dyspnea, and anxiety in palliative and end-of-life care patients. During this tough period, they support patients' comfort and improve their general quality of life. 

It is very important to discuss with your doctor the compatibility of prescribed opioids with other medications you might be taking, as such drugs have a high incompatibility with opioids. 

Avoid drinking alcohol when using opioids. Combining these drugs with alcohol may cause you to become even more sleepy and raise your chance of experiencing additional negative side effects. 

What are the dangers of opioids? 

When using prescribed opioids, it is very important to know their dangers and possible side effects as it is a highly addictive group of pharmaceuticals. 

Increased tolerance 

People who take opioids over an extended period of time may become less responsive and require bigger dosages to get the same amount of pain relief. This enhanced opioid sensitivity can result in higher dosages and perhaps dose-dependent adverse effects. To successfully treat pain and reduce the risk of tolerance-related problems, regular monitoring and dosage modifications are essential, as well as looking into non-opioid alternatives. 

Addiction and dependency 

One of the most obvious risks associated with opioids taken for medical purposes is the potential for addiction and dependence. Long-term opioid usage can develop physical dependency, which can cause withdrawal symptoms when stopped. Additionally, some people may have opioid use disorder (OUD), which is characterized by compulsive drug use and a lack of control. The potential for addiction must be weighed against the advantages of pain treatment, and individuals undergoing opioid medication should be thoroughly examined for risk factors. 

Reduced cognitive function 

Opioids have the potential to make users drowsy and sedentary, which affects cognitive and psychomotor abilities. Opioid users may have trouble paying attention, remembering things, and making decisions, which raises the possibility of accidents and injury. It is not recommended to operate machinery or drive a vehicle when using prescribed opioids. 

Digestive problems 

Constipation, which can be severe and chronic, is a typical gastrointestinal side effect of prescribed opioids. Chronic opioid usage may result in opioid-induced bowel dysfunction (OIBD), which can include nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain as well as bowel blockage. 

Opioid overdose 

Because opioids affect the area of the brain that controls respiration, using them can result in fatality. Three signs and symptoms, when combined, can indicate an opioid overdose: 

  • Smaller pupils 
  • Unconsciousness 
  • Breathing issues 
  • Change of color in lips or/and fingertips 
  • Vomiting or making gurgling noises 

If a person close to you has any of the mentioned symptoms it is crucially important to call 911 and get help as soon as possible

Nearly 24% of all opioid overdose deaths in the US in 2020 involved a prescription drug. Since 1999, prescription opioid overdoses have resulted in more than 263,000 fatalities in the United States

It's important to know that anyone who takes opioids on prescription risks addiction. 

Why is the opioid crisis a global concern? 

Since 2000, more than a million people in the United States have died of drug overdoses, the majority of which were due to opioids.  

For decades the main cause of opioid overdose was heroin. Heroin is a narcotic, which is never used for medical needs. However, Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is around fifty times stronger than heroin, has recently become the symbol of the issue. The opioid crisis, according to analysts, began with the overprescription of legal painkillers, but it has gotten worse in recent years as a result of the illegal importation of cheap heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. The situation has grown to such proportions that it now threatens national security and places a serious strain on the economy. 


Source: National Institute of Drug Abuse

In the United States, drug-related overdose deaths increased to over 106,000 in 2021, including deaths caused by both illegal and prescribed opioids. 

According to a 2021 Cambridge University study, in Europe, apart from the British Isles, and particularly Scotland, none of the 19 European countries included in this analysis showed signs of an opioid problem equivalent to that in the US. To pinpoint causes and create treatments to halt the escalating opioid problem in the UK and Ireland, more study is required.  

However, given the scope and severity of the synthetic opioid epidemic in North America and the likelihood that it will eventually spread to other areas of the world, supply control measures, even those that are only partially successful and ineffective, can still save lives. For this reason, they must be created with the greatest amount of intelligence and sturdiness. 

Overall opioids can help to ease great pain, yet have a variety of dangers, which should be discussed with your doctor before starting the treatment. It is important to use opioids with caution and under medical supervision. 

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avatar Polina Kochetkova

Author: Polina Kochetkova, Health Writer

Polina is a content creator at Carenity, specialised in health writing. Polina is pursuing her bachelors in fashion marketing from IFA Paris University and in her spare time loves to play tennis and listen to music.

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Who reviewed it: Hela Ammar, Pharmacist, data scientist

Hela is a PharmD and holds a master's degree in Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Management from ESCP Business School. Through her various experiences, Hela has acquired a transversal vision of the health field and... >> Learn more


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