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What is Opioid Addiction?

There is a lot of talk nowadays around opioids. This is due to a spike in opioid addiction, mostly to opioid painkillers. While the opioid epidemic rages across the country, many people are seeking to learn more about opioids in order to protect themselves. But what are opioids? And what is opioid addiction?

Opioids are a type of drug commonly used to relieve pain.1, 2 They can be derived from poppy plants or made synthetically.2 Some types of opioids are legal and can be obtained with a doctor’s prescription, while others are illegal in the United States.1, 2 The chemical compositions of prescription opioids and heroin are very close and they work in similar ways.3, 4

Opioid addiction is a disease that is marked by a compulsion to use opioids and the inability to stop using even after it’s created negative consequences.2, 4 It is a chronic disease that leads to severe impairment in one or more areas of a person’s life.2, 5 In those who are addicted to opioids, continued use creates changes in how the brain works, making it difficult to stop using.4

In 2018, about 2 million Americans aged 12 or older met the criteria for opioid use disorder.5, 6 Around 3 million Americans are dependent on opioids and fit the criteria for opioid addiction.5  opioid painkillers remain the most common opioid abuse, while over 800,000 people abused the similar narcotic heroin.6

Is Opioid Addiction a Disease?

Is opioid addiction a disease? The medical consensus is “yes,” addiction to opioids is a disease, and can be addressed with medical treatment. To be diagnosed with an opioid use disorder, a person must exhibit “a problematic pattern of opioid use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress,” as well as a variety of symptoms that manifest physically, psychologically, and behaviorally.7 Addiction also involves an overwhelming urge to use opioids.4, 5 These cravings can be so consuming that it may be difficult to think of anything other than opioids.7 Opioid use disorder is a chronic disease that affects areas of the brain that control the reward system, behaviors, impulse control, anxiety, and emotions.2, 5, 7

Opioids are commonly prescribed to treat pain associated with severe injuries, surgery, cancer, or chronic pain.2, 4, 8 When taken for a short time, they are less likely to lead to addiction than if taken over a long period.8 Misusing opioids by taking them more often than prescribed, for longer than prescribed, using them when they haven’t been prescribed, or taking them in a different manner than intended can make you more likely to develop an addiction.2, 3. 4 It is estimated that 12-25% of people who are prescribed opioid medications misuse them.9

Prescription Opioids

Prescription opioids include hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), codeine, morphine, and fentanyl.5, 10 Fentanyl is a synthetic medication that is much stronger than heroin and is only prescribed for post-surgical and severe pain that can’t be controlled by other types of prescription opioids.4, 10 Opioid medications work by blocking pain signals between the body and the brain.4

Opioids are frequently prescribed to treat chronic pain, sometimes with addiction as a consequence.People who suffer from chronic pain and using opioid to treat it may be tempted to misuse opioids for relief. When opioids are prescribed in high doses, the person taking them may be more likely to misuse them, have difficulty controlling their use, develop an addiction, and may find them to be less effective at controlling pain.9 This is sadly how many an opioid addiction begins; a treatment for chronic pain gone awry. Indeed, up to half of all people who take opioid medications over a long period fit the criteria for a diagnosis of opioid use disorder.5

This link between chronic pain and long-term opioid pain medication can exacerbate the dangers of prescription opioid misuse. While they may not be obvious at first, the dangers of prescription opioid misuse will worsen over time. Physical dependence is often the first sign of prescription opioid misuse. Suffering withdrawal symptoms from stopping the medication can be another early sign of opioid addiction.

Immediate Opioid Side Effects

The immediate opioid side effects can be readily apparent and may appear rapidly after consumption of the drug. Drugs such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl, and other drugs such as heroin can induce these immediate opioid side effects:

  • Sedation.
  • Dizziness.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Impaired judgment.
  • Reduced motor skills.

Long Term Effects of Opioids

Opioids taken long-term can have side effects as well. These include:4, 7

  • Irregular heartbeat.
  • Increased risk of heart attack.
  • Depression.
  • Abdominal Pain.
  • Hormonal issues.

Signs and Symptoms of Opioid Addiction

In order to be diagnosed with opioid addiction, a person must show at least two of the signs and symptoms of opioid addiction.7 The signs of opioid use disorder include both physical and behavioral symptoms. Physical symptoms can be seen in one’s physical health, while behavioral symptoms appear as changes or additions to one’s behavior or outlook.

Physical Symptoms of Opioid Addiction

An addiction can’t be diagnosed just by looking at a person; however, there are some red flags that a person may be using opioids. These physical symptoms of opioid addiction include:2, 4 , 5 , 7

  • Drowsiness.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Slurred Speech.
  • Poor Coordination.
  • Reduced motor skills.

Behavioral Symptoms of Opioid Addiction

The behavioral symptoms of opioid addiction may be more difficult to spot, or can be better hidden. The behavioral symptoms of opioid addiction include:4, 5, 7, 11

  • Excessive lying about opioid us.
  • Using larger quantities of opioid than prescribed.
  • Obtaining opioids illegally.
  • Legal troubles.
  • Forgoing responsibilities to use opioids.
  • New financial troubles.
  • Strained or broken relationships, usually due to opioid use.
  • Quitting previously loved hobbies.

Are You Struggling with Opioid Addiction?

If you aren’t sure if you or a loved one has an opioid addiction, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you recognize one or more of these symptoms?
  • Are you looking for help but don’t know where to start?

If you answered yes to either of these questions, you may want to think about finding addiction treatment for yourself or a loved one.

How American Addiction Centers Can Help

American Addiction Centers can help with opioid addiction. As the leading addiction treatment provider in the United States, they focus on not only treating the addiction itself, but the causes that led to its development.12 Treatment is specialized to meet the needs of each person.12 There are 8 treatment centers across the country, making it easier to access care.13 To learn more about how American Addiction Centers can help, you can call our free helpline 24/7 to speak to an admissions navigator.12

Not Sure About Opioid Addiction Treatment?

You may wonder if you need opioid addiction treatment, or be unsure of what treatment would involve. In general, there are three major components of addiction treatment: detoxification, inpatient, and outpatient. If you are interested in seeing how these processes work, consider following these links:


  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018). What are opioids?
  2. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2020). Opioid misuse and addiction.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Prescription pain medications (opioids).
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Opioid facts for teens.
  5. Dydyk, A.M., Jain, N.K., & Gupta, M. (2020). Opioid use disorder. Treasure Island, FL: StatPearls Publishing.
  6. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Find help: ATOD.
  7. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
  8. Harvard Health Publishing. (2013). Caution: These are the most addictive pain meds.
  9. Ballantyne, J.C., (2017). Opioids for the treatment of chronic pain: Mistakes made, lessons learned, and future directions. Anesthesia & Analgesia, 125(5), 1769-1778.
  10. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Opioids.
  11. American Society of Anesthesiologists. Opioid abuse.
  12. American Addiction Centers. (2020). American addiction centers.
  13. American Addiction Centers. (2020). Our treatment centers.
  14. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of drug addiction treatment: A research-based guide (3rd edition).