Understanding Opioid Addiction & Treatment

Opioid addiction (or opioid use disorder) has affected millions of Americans since the prescriptions became commonplace again in the 1990s. In 2019 alone, over 50,000 people lost their lives to opioid overdose, making the substance responsible for about 70% of drug overdose deaths that year. 

Opioids are powerful painkillers, but also highly addictive drugs. These narcotics have been available in the United States since the 1700s and were popular into the early 1900s until they became regulated due to problems with addiction among the country’s population. Later, in the 1980s, misinformed doctors began prescribing opioids again, making way for another national opioid crisis.

Opioid Crisis

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are central nervous system (CNS) depressants that work in the body to relieve pain. Originally derived from the opium poppy plant, opioids can also be made in a lab in synthetic form. Opioids are also referred to as narcotics and come in both legal and illicit forms.

Legally, prescription opioids are used to treat acute and chronic pain. They do this by binding to pain receptors throughout the body and blocking pain signals to the brain, thereby reducing a person’s discomfort. 

Alternatively, illegal opioids are street drugs used without a prescription to get high. Illegal opioids include heroin, opium, and illegally produced fentanyl (one of the most potent synthetic opioids).

Opiates vs Opioids

Opiates and opioids are similar in chemical structure, and the terms are often used to describe the same substances. However, there is one main difference between opioids and opiates. 

Opioids refer to all opioids, including natural opioids from the poppy plant, synthetic (man-made) opioids, and semisynthetic options. Alternatively, opiates only refer to natural opioids made from the opium plant, not ones that have been made in a lab. Examples of opiates include codeine, morphine, and some types of heroin. 

The effects of opiates on the body are similar to those of opioids with pain-relieving but highly addictive properties. 

Opioid Painkillers: What Medications Are Opioids?

Opioid Pills

Prescription opioids are meant to be used for a relatively short amount of time unless a patient is terminally ill or suffering from chronic pain

Common opioids include: 

  • Hydrocodone prescription (i.e., Norco, Lortab, Vicodin) 
  • Codeine (generic only, or combination products such as Tylenol with Codeine)
  • Oxycodone prescription (i.e., Roxicodone, OxyContin, Percocet)
  • Hydromorphone prescription (i.e., Exalgo, Dialaudid)
  • Morphine prescription (i.e., Kadian, MS Contin, Morphabond)
  • Fentanyl prescription (i.e., Fentora, Subsys, Actiq, Abstral, Lazanda)
  • Methadone prescription (i.e., Dolophine, Methadose)
  • Oxymorphone (i.e., Opana)
  • Meperidine (i.e., Demerol)
  • Tramadol (i.e., Ultram, Ultracet, and Ryzolt)
  • Carfentanil (elephant tranquilizer being found in illegal drugs)

Most opioids prescriptions are taken orally in pill form. However, prescription opioids may also be administered with lollipops or lozenges as well as intravenously, via a skin patch, or by suppository. Typical side effects of opioids include constipation, sleepiness, and nausea, along with potential depression, confusion, and, ironically, increased sensitivity to pain.

The Coronavirus’ Impact on Opioid Abuse

After opioid addiction rocked the United States throughout the 2000s, a decline in opioid overdose deaths was beginning to take place in 2017-2018. Unfortunately, the global impact of COVID-19 left the world reeling, negatively impacting almost everyone, especially those with substance use disorders. 

For example, pandemic lockdowns and quarantine interrupted not only addiction treatment and peer support networks but also induced a level of stress that prompted many to self-medicate with alcohol or drug use. In 2020, opioid overdose deaths saw new highs as many attempted to find solace from isolation and mental strain. 

However, rest assured that despite the complications caused by COVID, effective addiction treatment is still available as treatment teams implement new and innovative methods to safely treat patients in need of addiction therapy during the coronavirus pandemic.  

Opioid Use in Nevada

Opioid addiction by state reveals that the Nevada opioid epidemic specifically was even worse than in other parts of the country. Nevada opioid statistics report that deaths related to opioid use were consistently a leading cause of death in Nevada, surpassing even car accident fatalities. 

As seen in national trends, Nevada was experiencing a decline in opioid-related deaths in 2017-2018. Unfortunately, due to both the circulation of illicit fentanyl and the effects of COVID-19, Nevada opioid deaths rose significantly again in 2020. Las Vegas and Clark county specifically saw a 125% increase in fentanyl-related deaths in the first half of 2020

Opioid use continues to pose a substantial threat to both Nevada and the country as a whole. Understanding opioid addiction and signs of opioid use is an important first step in recognizing a potential addiction before it starts. 

Opioid Addiction and Dependence

Opioid addiction and dependence refer to two different conditions. Addiction occurs in the brain and refers to a mental illness that is characterized by the compulsive need to consume drugs despite the negative consequences occurring due to drug use. For example, if someone cannot stop abusing opioids despite the fact it’s causing them to struggle at work, with family, or elsewhere in life, then they may suffer from opioid use disorder (addiction).

On the other hand, opioid dependence refers to the body’s physical need for the drug either to produce the desired high (indicating an opioid tolerance) or to simply function properly (opioid dependence). Occasionally, physical opioid dependence can occur without psychological addiction. Once an opioid dependence is established, withdrawals will occur if the person suddenly quits taking the narcotics. 

In regards to prescription opioids, an opioid risk tool has been developed to assess the likelihood of addiction in a patient requiring pain medication. It relies on self-reports of the patient’s family history but could offer insight into a lower versus higher risk of opioid abuse. 

Signs of Opioid Abuse

Opioid Abuse

Signs of opioids abuse or addiction can depend on whether the opioid is a legally prescribed medication or an illegal drug like heroin. 

Internally, someone with opioid use disorder will struggle with symptoms like intense opioid cravings and desire to use. Outwardly, signs of opioid addiction could include: 

  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Weight loss
  • Unexplained drowsiness  
  • Frequent flu-like symptoms
  • Decline in hygiene
  • Failure to meet responsibilities 
  • Change in routines
  • Isolation
  • Financial hardship

In addition, signs of illicit opioid use could include: 

  • Track marks
  • Drug paraphernalia 
  • Change of friends or acquaintances
  • A shift in personal appearance
  • Visitors at odd hours

Opioid addiction symptoms can mimic the signs of opioid abuse, or they may be amplified. They could also include behaviors such as the inability to quit using the drugs. At this point, a shift from abusing legitimate prescription opioids to purchasing illicit ones may occur if the individual loses access to the prescribed source. Sadly, purchasing drugs from dealers adds numerous risks to drug use, including drug contamination and increased chance of overdose

Opioid Overdose

During the years of 1999-2019, nearly half a million people died from opioid-related overdoses in the United States. Fast forward to the 2020s, and opioid overdoses remain the leading cause of drug overdose deaths.

The vast majority of opioid overdoses involved synthetics opioids, or those that are man-made. Illegally manufactured synthetic fentanyl is thought to be the driving force behind opioid overdoses (synthetic fentanyl continues to make its way into numerous street drugs). In fact, fentanyl and other unknown substances are often pressed into pills that appear to be legal prescriptions. These pills are then purchased and taken by people assuming they are safe because they are prescribed medication.

Symptoms of Opioid Overdose

Opioids cause respiratory distress if taken in excess. During this time, breathing is slowed to a dangerously low level, potentially starving the brain of oxygen before stopping altogether. There are three main symptoms of opioid overdose to look for:

  1. Unconsciousness
  2. Pinpoint pupils
  3. Shallow or troubled breathing

Other symptoms of opioid overdose include:

  • Conscious but unable to speak
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Limpness 
  • Blue-ish lips or skin
  • Slow or unsteady pulse
  • Vomiting
  • Gurgling or choking noise

The risk of opioid overdose increases in those with opioid use disorders, if more than one depressant is used (i.e., opioids and alcohol or opioids and benzodiazepines), or if the opioid is injected. Fortunately, an opioid antagonist, or a medication that will block and reverse the effects of opioids, does exist. Therefore, if administered in time, an opioid overdose can usually be reversed. 

It should be noted that polydrug use in general, or using more than one substance at a time, will increase the odds of overdose significantly. 

Opioid Overdose Treatments


Naloxone is the opioid overdose medication used during an opioid overdose. It is available in a nasal spray and injectable form. While naloxone administration has historically been performed by a medical professional, a naloxone kit is now available over the counter in some areas. The main naloxone brand is called Narcan and is available in nasal spray or injection forms.  

Any time opioid overdose symptoms are recognized, authorities should be called immediately. If possible, keep the person awake. If naloxone is available, it should be administered while waiting for a medical team to arrive. But remember that naloxone is never a substitute for medical care.

It is important to emphasize that an opioid reversal agent may save a life in the short term, but it does not treat the addiction or prevent the user from taking opioids again. When it comes to opioid use disorder it is highly beneficial to contact a qualified drug rehab to assist in addressing the addiction.

Opioid Withdrawals

Opioid withdrawal symptoms often resemble the flu. The severity of these symptoms ranges from mild to severe and depends on the type of opioid used, the personal history of use, and the user’s biology. In general, opioid withdrawal symptoms include:

Mild Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Excessive yawning
  • Teary eyes and runny nose
  • Muscle aches

Severe Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms

  • Severe anxiety
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Blurry vision
  • Rapid heartbeat and high blood pressure 
  • Nausea and vomiting

Broadly speaking, the worst of the withdrawal symptoms will subside about a week after onset. However, the opioid withdrawal timeline largely depends on the type of opioid used. For example, heroin leaves the system faster than prescriptions like methadone. Therefore, withdrawal symptoms from heroin will begin much sooner after the last dose than those from methadone.

Fear of opioid withdrawal is a major barrier to quitting. However, opioid addiction treatment is available, and addiction professionals are well versed in handling opioid-related issues. 

Opioid Withdrawal Timeline

The withdrawal experience will be different for everyone. However, generally speaking, flu-like symptoms can be expected to begin after opioid use is stopped. These symptoms will worsen over the course of a few days before starting to lessen. 

Early Withdrawal

The onset of withdrawal from short-acting opioids like heroin will be felt around six hours after the last dose. 

Opioid prescription withdrawals (i.e. fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone) will be felt anywhere from eight to 24 hours after cessation. 

Longer-acting or time-released opioids such as methadone may take up to two or three days before withdrawal symptoms are felt. 

Late Withdrawal

Depending on the type of opioid, withdrawal symptoms will peak around three days after the onset of symptoms and last about a week. At this point, the worst of the opioid withdrawal symptoms should be resolved, although more subtle symptoms may continue for a few more weeks. 

Post-Acute Withdrawal (PAWS)

Once the acute opioid withdrawal phases are completed, ongoing symptoms may be felt from months to years after drug use has stopped. While this is not always the case, it’s wise to have a relapse prevention plan for when unexpected cravings arise. Fortunately, addiction treatment and ongoing support groups will also be able to assist with any symptoms of post-acute withdrawal. 

Opioid Addiction Treatment in Las Vegas, Nevada

In Nevada, someone dies every day from an opioid overdose. Fortunately, regardless of whether opioid use is prescription or illegally obtained, addiction treatment can help with opioid use disorder. 

Behavioral counseling to treat opioid addiction is imperative in order to understand the root of addiction and to avoid relapseAs an addiction treatment center located in Las Vegas, Nevada, the Victorious Journey Recovery Center (VJRC) understands opioid addiction. Our treatment team members are experts in addiction treatment and can effectively guide you through the process of stopping opioid abuse.

About the Victorious Journey Recovery Center

There is no one-size-fits-all for addiction treatment. The programs at the Victorious Journey Recovery Center are evidence-based and holistic in nature, meaning that the individual person and their personal circumstances are taken into consideration when developing a treatment plan for opioid recovery. Additionally, our inpatient and residential programs provide comfortable, therapeutic settings that support growth.

Listed below are a few of the treatment therapies available at the Victorious Journey Recovery Center:

Our commitment to you is to support you throughout a continuum of care that extends to before, during, and after treatment at VJRC. Deciding to commit to rehab for opioid addiction is a huge first step in treatment. To get started on your recovery, contact an admissions specialist at 888-828-2623 or use our confidential online contact form.

You CAN take your life back from opioid addiction. And the Victorious Journey Recovery Center is ready to help.

Frequently Asked Questions About Opioids

Narcotic is another word for opioid. Therefore, narcotics include legal opioid prescriptions, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, and illegal opioids such as heroin. 

Opioids bind to receptors in the brain and interrupt pain signals, providing relief to those in discomfort. While opioids are medically useful, they are also mentally and physically addictive substances and can cause a host of problems if used incorrectly. 

Opiates are the natural forms of opioids, meaning that opiates are made from the opium poppy plant rather than in a lab. Opiates are used for their pain-killing properties in the same manner as opioids and are equally as addictive. Examples of opiates include codeine, morphine, and heroin.

Opioids are drugs that originally derived from opium or the poppy plant, but that can now be made synthetically in a lab. Opioids can be found in both legal (prescription painkillers) and illegal (heroin) forms. They have powerful pain-killing properties but are also highly addictive. 

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