Long and Short-Term Side Effects From Using Opioids
Opioids include both prescription painkillers and the illicit drug heroin.1 Fentanyl, a powerful prescription drug used for severe chronic pain that is now commonly produced and used illegally, is another opioid.2 Widespread opioid abuse has driven the opioid epidemic, which has caused more than a quarter-million drug overdoses in the U.S. in the past 20 years.3 However, while overdoses understandably attract a lot of media attention, there are many other negative health effects of long-term opioid use or abuse. We’ll discuss some of them in this article.
Short-Term Side Effects of Opioid Use and Addiction
There are several short-term side effects that can develop when someone misuses opioids. These short-term effects of opioids can include, but are not limited to, the following:1
- Slowed breathing
Individuals who misuse opioids may experience these effects while under the influence as well as shortly thereafter. Continued misuse of opioids can lead to more severe effects.
Social Impacts of Opioid Misuse
When someone is misusing opioids, they can experience many different short and long-term effects to their health and wellbeing. However, they can also start to notice changes in their social life as a result of their misuse.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), individuals who are struggling with an opioid use disorder can exhibit the following symptoms, all of which negatively impact their social lives:
- Spending a great deal of time acquiring, using, or recovering from using opioids
- Neglecting responsibilities at home, work, or school because of use
- Continuing to use despite it causing problems in relationships
- Giving up important social, recreational, or occupational activities to use
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Opioid Use and Addiction?
Certain adverse health effects may be associated with chronic opioid use or abuse. Long-term use can lead to the development of opioid dependence, which can trigger the onset of a number of painful withdrawal symptoms when use is suddenly ceased. Studies on long-term opioid treatment have indicated several other associated risks of misuse, including the potential for harm in various organ systems throughout the body.4
Physical Health Effects of Opioids
The misuse of opioids can cause a number of various physical effects that can last even after a person has stopped using. Ranging from the GI system to the heart, here are some of the potential physical health effects of long-term opioid misuse.
Long-term opioid use can lead to GI problems like recurrent or chronic constipation, a widely recognized, very common, and unwanted side effect of opioids.4
Studies have shown that up to 45% of people taking opioids therapeutically report experiencing constipation, with some having constipation so severe that they need to reduce their dosage or stop using opioids. In serious cases, bowel obstruction can result, a potentially fatal complication that may require hospitalization.4
Other opioid-related GI complaints include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and bloating. Opioid users who have GI symptoms tend to have many more ER visits, hospital admissions, and longer hospital stays than those without GI symptoms.4
The GI symptoms associated with opioid use also seem to have a mental health impact on users. Chronic constipation has been shown to increase an opioid user’s risk of psychological distress and depression.4
Opioid Abuse and the Respiratory System
Opioids can cause several respiratory problems, including slowed or irregular breathing; in overdose, they can lead to dangerously slowed breathing or complete respiratory arrest. The lack of adequate oxygen to the brain resulting from an opioid overdose can lead to coma, brain damage, or death.1,4
Your cardiovascular system could also be negatively affected by long-term opioid use. One study published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation found that opioid use is a risk factor for heart rhythm abnormalities such as atrial fibrillation, a condition that can lead to serious adverse cardiac events, such as stroke, heart failure, and death.5,6
Research has also shown a potential connection between prescription opioid use and an increased risk of coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease in women.7
Among injection opioid users, bloodborne bacterial infections that result from unsanitary intravenous needle use can lead to endocarditis, an infection of the inner lining of the heart that can be fatal when left untreated.8,9
Long-term opioid use may negatively impact the reproductive systems of both men and women. Some studies show that for women, opioid use may be associated with decreased fertility as well as an increased risk of pregnancy loss and other pregnancy complications such as placental abruption, and preterm birth.11
For men, long-term opioid use may affect testosterone production and decrease the quality and quantity of the sperm.12
Babies born to mothers who use opioids during pregnancy may suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome (opioid withdrawal after birth). They are also at risk of having longer post-birth hospital stays, being re-hospitalized within the first month of life, being born with birth defects, and having developmental delays.13
Falls and Fractures
Opioid use may contribute to the risk of fracture in the elderly. A study comparing older adults with arthritis who managed pain with opioids to those who managed pain with NSAIDs (e.g., ibuprofen) found that those who used opioids—especially short-acting opioids such as codeine and hydrocodone—had an increased risk of fractures as compared to the NSAID-using group. Higher opioid doses are associated with higher fracture risk.14
The negative impact that opioids can have on sensory-motor and cognitive function in the elderly can make falls more likely in these individuals.14,15 With the increased likelihood of fracture, a fall can be very dangerous in an older adult taking opioids, particularly if they are taking them in high doses.15
Opioid Abuse and HIV or Other Infectious Diseases
Certain types of opioid use can raise the risk of infectious diseases such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and viral hepatitis. Injection opioid users are considered high-risk for these diseases because these infections are easily spread by the sharing of contaminated needles and other tools used for injection.8
Some non-injection opioid users may still be at risk of transmitting infectious diseases through unsafe sex practices.16
Long-Term Mental Effects of Opioids
Studies show that the continued misuse of opioids can increase one’s likelihood of developing an anxiety disorder and/or depression.4 Unfortunately, depression can cause an increase in physical and emotional pain, which can feed into the continuation of an addiction.4 Getting treated for depression, anxiety, or any other long-term mental effect of opioid misuse can help mitigate symptoms and prevent continued use.
Getting Help for Opioid Addiction
Problematic use of any type of opioid, legal or illegal, is linked to a high risk for opioid addiction. While opioid addiction is a chronic disorder, it is a treatable one.17 With proper treatment, people recover from addiction and start living happier, healthier, and drug-free lives.
Opioid addiction treatment can take many forms but often begins with some form of detox.18 Because withdrawal from opioids can intensely unpleasant, many people detox from opioids with medical support in a professional treatment program.19
If you are struggling with an addiction to opioids, reach out to AdCare right now to be connected with one of our rehab admissions navigators. They can help answer any and all questions regarding insurance options and how to pay for rehab, as well as any other questions you may have.
Don’t let addiction take control of your life any longer. Call us today at to learn more about addiction treatment at AdCare. There are two inpatient AdCare facilities, one Rhode Island drug rehab facility, and one drug rehab in Massachusetts. AdCare also offers outpatient treatment and has sister facilities across the United States as well. Call us right now to learn more about our comprehensive addiction treatment options.
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