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5 Potential Dangers of Opiate Prescription Drugs

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prescription opiate drug

Codeine is a common prescription opiate drug.

As far as pain relief agents go, opiate prescription drugs offer the most effective treatment approach. These drugs naturally interact with the body’s own pain management system promoting fast relief from pain symptoms. These same interactions play a central role in the high abuse and addiction potential associated with opiate prescription drugs.

Opiate prescription drugs comprise both natural and synthetically made substances. Both groups of opiates derive from the opium poppy seed plant in terms of their chemical make-up and intended effects.

Commonly used prescription drugs include:

  • Codeine
  • Morphine
  • Lortab
  • OxyContin
  • Dilaudid
  • Percocet
  • Demerol

Drug manufacturers can formulate a wide range of drug potencies, which makes for an across-the-board treatment approach for any type of pain-related condition. While these drugs no doubt meet real treatment needs, rates of opiate prescription drug abuse exceed those of all other drug types, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Effects on the Brain & Body

According to Princeton University, the poppy seed plant contains 25 pain-relieving alkaloid compounds from which opiate prescription drugs are modeled after. The human body also contains its own opioid system that helps in relieving pain symptoms.

Opiates work by stimulating the production of endorphin or neurotransmitter chemicals throughout the brain and central nervous system. These effects work to prevent incoming pain signals from reaching the brain. Incidentally, opiates and endorphins share certain similarities in chemical structure.

With similar chemical structures, the brain can easily integrate opiate drug effects within its own chemical system. These interactions can make for a dangerous chain of events in cases where a person abuses opiate prescription drugs on a regular basis.

Opiate Prescription Drug Dangers

1. Tolerance Level Increases

Opiates act on individual brain cell sites, triggering endorphin chemical outputs. Normally, cell sites secrete these chemicals on an as-needed basis.

When forced to output excess amounts of endorphins on a frequent basis, these cells become overworked. Before long, cell sites start to take on structural damage, which weakens their ability to produce needed chemical supplies.

As cells grow weaker, larger drug doses are needed to produce the desired effects. When this happens, the brain’s tolerance level for opiates increases.

In cases of opiate prescription drug abuse, brain tolerance levels continue to rise as damage to cell sites increases. This cycle will continue for as long as a person abuses these drugs. In effect, increasing tolerance levels account for much of the danger associated with opiate prescription drug abuse.

2. The Abuse Cycle

The brain’s ready acceptance of opiates combined with increasing tolerance level effects sets the stage for the drug abuse cycle to take hold. As cell sites weaken, they gradually become physically dependent on opiate effects.

Meanwhile, the repeated surges of endorphin chemicals create a state of chemical imbalance in the brain over time. Under these conditions, the brain’s ability to regulate the body’s functions sees considerable decline.

As brain functions falter, various processes throughout the body start to breakdown. At this point, opiate prescription drug users start to experience withdrawal effects in response to the brain’s weakened functional capacity.

Withdrawal effects may take the form of:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Restlessness
  • Random aches and pains
  • Sweating
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Tremors

In order to alleviate withdrawal discomfort, users ingest more of the drug in an attempt to self-medicate withdrawal effects. When taken on a regular basis, opiate prescription drug abuse practices can easily develop over a short period of time.

3. Addiction

Opiate prescription drugs do a number on the brain’s chemical system, causing widespread chemical imbalances throughout. After a certain point, these conditions start to impact the brain’s reward system, the area most responsible for the types of choices a person makes throughout any given day.

In effect, the brain reward system determines a person’s priorities and motivations based on the types of reinforcing stimuli it receives on a regular basis. Not surprisingly, endorphin chemicals regulate this system so any changes or fluctuations in endorphin levels will set off changes in the brain’s reward system.

As brain chemical imbalances worsen, the reward system comes to view opiate prescription drug effects as a major reinforcing stimulus. Over time, these effects translate over into a person’s motivations, drive and belief systems. Once opiate prescription drug effects commander the brain’s reward system, a full-blown addiction has taken hold.

At this point, a person’s lifestyle will undergo drastic changes as drugs take priority in his or her life, according to the Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation. These changes may include:

  • Loss of interest in once enjoyed activities
  • Radical change in social circle
  • Relationship conflicts
  • Problems with the law
  • Financial difficulties

4. Overdose

The brain’s tolerance for opiates increases at a much faster rate than the body’s major systems. As opiate effects directly impact central nervous system functions, too high a dose can easily shutdown critical bodily functions. Systems most affected by opiates include:

  • Cardiovascular
  • Respiratory
  • Digestive
  • Body temperature regulation
  • Circulatory

In the majority of overdose cases, opiate’s slowing effects disable the body’s respiratory system causing respiratory failure to occur. In effect, the risk of overdose increases the longer a person keeps abusing prescription opiates.

5. Gateway to Heroin Use

Opiate prescription drugs and heroin both belong to the opiate drug category. Heroin differs from prescription opiates in potency level, availability, and of course, illegal versus legal status. Otherwise, both drug types produce the same damaging effects.

Long-time prescription drug users develop incredibly high tolerance levels. After a certain point, mere prescription drugs no longer produce the desired “high” effects. In this respect, opiate prescription drugs act as a gateway to heroin use as heroin produces a much stronger, intense effect.


According to the U. S. National Library of Medicine, opiate prescription drugs carry a high risk of abuse and addiction regardless of the intended purpose for use. Even when used for pain treatment purposes, tolerance level increases nullify the drug’s pain-relieving effects. The resulting pain flare-ups can easily drive a person to increase the dosage amount in order to gain relief. For these reasons, opiate prescription drugs should only be taken on a short-term basis.

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