Why Opioids Are Addictive

Why Opioids Are Addictive

Opioids are drugs that act on the nervous system to relieve pain. Continued use and abuse can lead to physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms. They come in tablets, capsules or liquid. The reason of their being addictive is not unconnected with the fact that they affect the brain function. Heroin is an example of an opioid, but it isn’t used as a medicine, it is used to get high.

Effects of opioids can either be short-term and long-term. Short-term arises as a result of at first experience while long-term effects develop from increased and consistence use. Short-term effects of opioids and morphine derivatives include drowsiness, diminished breathing, constipation, unconsciousness, Nausea among others. In terms of long-term effect, continued use or abuse of opioids can result in physical dependence and addiction. The body adapts to the presence of the drug and withdrawal symptoms occur if use is reduced or stopped. These include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, and cold flashes with goose bumps (“cold turkey”). Tolerance can also occur, meaning that long-term users must increase their doses to achieve the same high.

Long-term opioid use changes the way nerve cells work in the brain. This happens even to people who take opioids for a long time to treat pain, as prescribed by their doctor. The nerve cells grow used to having opioids around, so that when they are taken away suddenly, the person can have lots of unpleasant feelings and reactions. These are known as withdrawal symptoms.

Have you ever had the flu? You probably had aching, fever, sweating, shaking, or chills. These are similar to withdrawal symptoms, but withdrawal symptoms are much worse.

side effects

That is why use of opioids should be carefully watched by a doctor—so that a person knows how much to take and when, as well as how to stop taking them to lessen the chances of withdrawal symptoms. Eventually, the cells will work normally again, but that takes time.

Someone who is addicted to opioids has other problems as well. For example, they keep taking the drug even though it may be having harmful effects on their life and their health. They have strong urges to take the drug—called cravings—and they no longer feel satisfied by natural rewards (like chocolate, TV, or a walk on the beach).

If you’ve ever seen The Wizard of Oz, then you’ve seen the poppy plant—the source of a type of drug called an opioid. The Wizard of Oz is a 1939 American musical comedy-drama fantasy film produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the best-known and most commercially successful adaptation based on the 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. When Dorothy lies down in a field of poppies, she falls into a deep sleep. No wonder the Latin name of this plant—Papaver somniferum—means “the poppy that makes you sleepy.” Opioids can be made from opium, which comes from the poppy plant, or they can be made in a lab. Either way, they can be helpful medicines—they are used as powerful painkillers, they are sometimes prescribed to control severe diarrhea, and they can also be found in cough medicine. Maybe you’ve heard of drugs called Vicodin, morphine, or codeine. These are examples of opioids. When used properly as medicine, they can be very helpful. But opioids used without a as prescription, or taken in other ways or for different reasons than the doctor prescribed, can be dangerous and addictive.

Opioids include drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin that are mostly prescribed for the treatment of moderate to severe pain.  They act by attaching to specific proteins called opioid receptors, which are found on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, gastrointestinal tract, and other organs in the body.  When these drugs attach to their receptors, they reduce the perception of pain and can produce a sense of well-being; however, they can also produce drowsiness, mental confusion, nausea, and constipation.

The effects of opioids are typically mediated by specific subtypes of opioid receptors (mu, delta, and kappa) that are activated by the body’s own (endogenous) opioid chemicals (endorphins, encephalin).   With repeated administration of opioid drugs (prescription or heroin), the production of endogenous opioids is inhibited, which accounts in part for the discomfort that ensues when the drugs are discontinued (i.e., withdrawal). Adaptations of the opioid receptors’ signaling mechanism have also been shown to contribute to withdrawal symptoms.


  1. http://www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/prescription/opioids-and-morphine-derivatives-effects.html
  2. https://teens.drugabuse.gov/teachers/mind-over-matter/opioids/how-does-someone-become-addicted
  3. https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/legislative-activities/testimony-to-congress/2016/americas-addiction-to-opioids-heroin-prescription-drug-abuse

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *