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Medically Reviewed

Opioid Addiction

- 9 sections

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Opioid Addiction: Signs, Long-Term Risks, Detox, and Treatment

Opioid abuse and addiction impact the lives of millions of people each year. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, about 3.8% of adults–about 10 million people– in the United States abuse opioids every year.

Opioid-related drug overdoses have risen in the past several years, and it’s estimated that over a million people have lost their lives to opioid overdoses since 1999. Over the last decade, there has been a significant increase in overdose deaths related to synthetic opioids like Fentanyl and Tramadol.

Understanding opioid use disorder and being able to recognize the signs of opioid addiction is critical so that people can get the treatment they need to overcome it. We’ve put together this guide to provide a basic overview of opioid addiction, including how it can develop, how to recognize it, and how it is treated.

Reach out to the Carolina Center for Recovery specialists now to learn about our opioid addiction treatment programs or to schedule an intake evaluation.

What are Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs that include both prescription painkillers and illegal drugs like heroin. They are derived from the opium poppy plant or synthesized in a laboratory. Opioids work by binding to specific receptors in the brain and body, known as opioid receptors, to produce pain relief and feelings of euphoria.

Prescription opioids are often prescribed by healthcare professionals to manage pain, but they can be highly addictive. In 2022, 131,778,501 prescriptions were dispensed for opioid medications. Common prescription opioids include:

  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Roxicodone)
  • Hydrocodone (Norco, Lortab, Hydro, Vicodin)
  • Codeine
  • Morphine
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Fentanyl

When misused or abused, opioids can lead to dependence, addiction, and overdose.

Heroin is an illegal opioid that is derived from morphine. It is often used recreationally for its euphoric effects. The misuse of opioids, both prescription and illegal, has become a significant public health concern due to the associated risks of addiction and overdose.

Additionally, fentanyl is also often manufactured illicitly and is the leading cause of opioid overdose deaths in the United States today. In 2021, there were an estimated 80,411 reported opioid overdose deaths, approximately 66% of which involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

Opioid Addiction: An Overview of the Basics

Prescription and illicit opioids are highly addictive, and about 8.7 million people reported misusing prescription opioids in 2021. People who use opioid drugs may develop a physical and psychological dependence on them. Those who develop opioid addiction must seek treatment and receive ongoing support to stop taking these drugs and avoid relapse.

Prescription opioid use can lead down a path of addiction. Doctors sometimes prescribe prescription opioid painkillers to patients who have had surgery or other medical procedures, who have been injured, or who deal with chronic pain.

Opioid painkillers are effective at relieving moderate to severe pain, but many people experience euphoria and other pleasurable effects when using them. These desirable effects of opioids may cause someone to want to misuse the drugs.

Opioid misuse includes:

  • Taking a larger dose than prescribed
  • Taking opioids more often than prescribed
  • Ingesting opioids differently than prescribed, such as crushing and snorting pills
  • Taking opioids for a longer period than prescribed
  • Taking opioids without a prescription (using them recreationally)

Opioid misuse can lead to tolerance, meaning the person needs to use higher doses to get the desired effects. Taking large or frequent doses of opioids can lead to serious health complications, including overdose and physical dependence.

People who become addicted to prescription opioids may begin to use illicit opioids once they can no longer obtain these medications legally. Buying opioids illegally puts people at increased risk for accidental overdose by exposure to Fentanyl and other severe, life-threatening harm.

Recognizing the Signs of Opioid Addiction

In 2021, an estimated 5 million people had a prescription opioid use disorder and about 1 million had a heroin use disorder. Anyone who uses opioids–even those using the drugs exactly as prescribed–is at risk for developing tolerance and dependence on these potent drugs. If you are concerned that someone you love is misusing opioids or is living with opioid addiction, there are signs to watch for.

Some of the most common signs of opioid addiction include:

  • Finishing their prescription early
  • Exhibiting erratic behaviors or mood swings
  • Significant changes in their appetite or sleep patterns
  • Being unable to keep up with responsibilities at home, work, or school
  • Isolating or spending time with a new group of friends
  • Giving up hobbies or interests
  • Stealing money or valuables
  • Stealing prescription drugs from others
  • “Doctor shopping”–having more than one prescription for opioids from multiple doctors

Opioid addiction can cause significant changes in the way a person looks and behaves. It’s important to be aware of the signs of opioid addiction and seek treatment as soon as possible so that your loved one can get the help they need to safely stop using these drugs.

Long-Term Effects of Opioid Abuse and Addiction

Long-term opioid abuse and addiction can have serious and detrimental effects on both physical and mental health. Some of the potential long-term consequences include:

  • Tolerance – Over time, individuals may develop tolerance to opioids, requiring higher doses to achieve the same effects.
  • Dependency – The body can become dependent on opioids, leading to withdrawal symptoms when the drug is not taken.
  • Cognitive Impairment – Prolonged opioid use may affect cognitive function and memory.
  • Mood Disorders – Opioid abuse can contribute to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
  • Respiratory Issues – Opioids can suppress respiratory function, leading to breathing difficulties.
  • Liver Damage – Some opioids, especially when combined with other substances, can contribute to liver damage.
  • Injection Risks – Individuals who misuse opioids by injecting them intravenously are at risk of contracting infectious diseases like HIV or hepatitis.
  • Fatal Overdose – Opioid abuse significantly increases the risk of a fatal overdose, especially if higher doses are taken or if opioids are combined with other substances.
  • Criminal Activity – Individuals may engage in illegal activities to obtain opioids, leading to legal consequences.
  • Relationship Strain – Opioid addiction can strain relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. Individuals may also withdraw from social activities and isolate themselves.

What Happens in Opioid Addiction Treatment?

People with opioid addiction must receive comprehensive treatment that addresses the complex underlying aspects of their substance abuse. For most people with opioid addiction, a medically-supported detox program is the first stage of treatment.

Opioid Detox

During a detox program, people receive medications like methadone or buprenorphine, as well as other therapies that help them manage the symptoms of opioid withdrawal.

Symptoms of opioid withdrawal can include:

  • Abdominal cramps
  • Anxiety
  • Cravings
  • Depression
  • Diarrhea
  • Excessive yawning
  • Fever
  • Chills and goosebumps
  • Heightened sensitivity to pain
  • Insomnia
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Nausea
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Excessive sweating
  • Vomiting

Opioid withdrawal can be very uncomfortable, and people often require significant physical and emotional support to avoid relapsing before detox is complete. The support of a detox program also gives people round-the-clock access to medical and mental health services in the case of a medical complication or emergency.

Opioid Addiction Treatment

Medically-supported detox is crucial, but people must also engage in therapies that help them identify why they used opioids and learn skills to avoid relapse. After completing detox, people can move on to an inpatient or outpatient addiction treatment program. In treatment, each person follows a tailored treatment plan that includes evidence-based and holistic therapies, including:

  • Individual counseling
  • Behavioral therapies
  • Family therapy and education
  • Group therapy
  • Relapse-prevention education
  • Medications
  • Mental health treatment
  • Coping skills practice

Opioid addiction treatment programs may also use medication-assisted treatment (MAT), an approach that combines behavioral therapy with FDA-approved medications to address opioid addiction. Medication-assisted treatment aims to reduce withdrawal symptoms, cravings, and the risk of relapse, allowing individuals to focus on their recovery journey. There are three main medications commonly used in MAT for opioid addiction:

  • Methadone – This long-acting opioid agonist helps reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms. It is often dispensed in specialized clinics and requires careful monitoring.
  • Buprenorphine – A partial opioid agonist, buprenorphine can alleviate cravings and withdrawal symptoms. It has a lower risk of overdose compared to full opioids and can be prescribed by qualified healthcare providers. Buprenorphine is often prescribed in the form of Suboxone, a brand name medication that also contains naloxone.
  • Naltrexone – This opioid antagonist blocks the effects of opioids and reduces cravings. It is available in oral form or as a monthly injection.

Opioid addiction is a complex condition, and people must learn to manage it and avoid relapse for life. Those living with opioid addiction must develop and follow a relapse-prevention plan that may include other forms of treatment, community support, regular mental health care, and other activities that support lifelong addiction recovery.

Find Help for Opioid Addiction Today

Carolina Center for Recovery is a state-licensed and CARF (Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities) accredited opioid addiction treatment facility. We are a dual-diagnosis facility with a primary focus on substance abuse. We offer individualized, extended-term treatment in an intimate setting located in Charlotte, NC.

We take a holistic approach to treating opioid addiction, offering a variety of treatment modalities centered around identifying and resolving the underlying issues associated with the addiction. Each client enrolled in our program will receive individual attention from a therapist and psychiatrist as well as gaining exposure to a multitude of traditional and alternative therapies.

If you or a loved one are struggling with opioid addiction and ready to take the first steps toward recovery, please contact us today.


  1. National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA): What is the scope of prescription drug misuse in the United States?
  2. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA): DEA Warns of Increase in Mass-Overdose Events Involving Deadly Fentanyl
  3. National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA): Drug Overdose Death Rates
  4. Dove Press Scientific and Medical Journals: Less Well-Known Consequences of the Long-Term Use of Opioid Analgesics: A Comprehensive Literature Review
  5. National Institutes of Health (NIH): Opioid Withdrawal