This page has information on:
- What are opioids
- What is opioid use disorder
- Treatment for opioid use disorder
What are opioids?
Opioids are a class of drugs that act on the endorphin system, which helps manage pain and pleasure.
Opioids can cause:
- Tolerance: over time you to need more to have the same effect.
- Physical dependence: when you stop using you go into withdrawal. Opioid withdrawal can feel like a very bad flu and can include nausea, chills, diarrhea, vomiting, and anxiety.
- Overdose: more opioids than the body can handle, breathing slows or stops.
- Opioid use disorder (OUD): also called addiction, this is physical dependence along with thinking/psychological and social problems.
Learn more about opioids from the CDC.
Susan’s Brain: The Science of Addiction, a video from Harvard and National Geographic describes what happens in the brain when someone takes opioids.
What is opioid use disorder?
Opioid use disorder (OUD) is a medical condition. If you have OUD it means you are physically dependent on opioids and have brain changes that affect your thinking, priorities and relationships.
Opioid use disorder is:
- Biological: physical dependence, tolerance, and withdrawal.
- Psychological: compulsive use, always thinking about opioids, most important thing in life.
- Social: opioids get in the way of responsibilities, relationships, work, school, etc.
Opioid use disorder is a medical condition that can be long-term, like diabetes, high blood pressure, or depression. Like those health conditions, medications can improve your health.
OUD can come back if not treated properly. You may need to try more than one type of treatment to find what works best for you
Signs and symptoms
People with opioid use disorder:
- Keep using opioids even though they know it is hurting them,
- Can’t quit even when they try repeatedly,
- Spend lots of time using opioids, or recovering from using,
- Use opioids in dangerous situations,
- The formal diagnosis of OUD involves these behaviors.
Why do people get opioid use disorder?
Most people who try opioids will not develop opioid use disorder. About one in four people who try heroin develop opioid use disorder; this proportion is probably similar for people who try other types of opioids in the social context and with the mindset of trying “to get high.”
Whether or not someone who tries opioids develops opioid use disorder can be influenced by their genetics, personality, physical/emotional trauma, life history, social environment, and other factors.
For some people, the first time they try opioids, they feel really good; others feel sleepy or nauseated. Over time their body gets used to opioids, and when a person does not have external opioids in their system, they will have symptoms of withdrawal and feel really bad. People will continue to use opioids just to feel normal.
Health and opioid use disorder
If you have untreated opioid use disorder you are at higher risk for dying, including being at high risk from an opioid overdose. You are also more likely to get serious infections like hepatitis C and HIV. If you think you might have opioid use disorder, talk to your health care provider. They can help you stay healthy even if you’re not ready for treatment.
Treatment for opioid use disorder
Medications are proven to work the best at treating opioid use disorder. They help:
- Manage craving and withdrawal,
- Reduce illicit opioid use,
- Decrease the risk of having an overdose.
Medications can provide stability, allowing you to address other things in your life.
You can be in recovery and be on medications at the same time.
What medications are used to treat OUD?
There are three places where you can get medications for opioid use disorder:
If you’re ready for treatment and/or recovery supports, or just want to learn more, connect with the Washington Recovery Help Line: 1-866-789-1511 (toll free, WA only) 206-461-3219 (TTY). 24-hour referrals to WA state.