Prescription opioids are used to help relieve moderate to severe pain and are often prescribed following a surgery or injury. People who take these drugs as prescribed rarely abuse them or become addicted. However, taking them not as prescribed or for an extended period of time increases the risk of misuse and addiction. In fact, studies suggest that up to one-third of people who take opioids for chronic pain misuse them, and more than 10 percent become addicted over time.
People are at increased risk of addiction if they obtain opioids without a prescription. Using opioids illegally also increases the risk of an overdose and drug-related death. Drugs that pass hands illegally, such as fentanyl, may be laced with life-threatening contaminants or much more powerful opioids.
How do you know if someone you care about is abusing opioid medications? It may not be easy to tell, especially in the early stages of addiction. Perhaps you’ve noticed changes in one’s moods or behavior that don’t add up. Maybe something just “doesn’t feel right.” Or maybe your intuition is telling you there’s a problem. Even if you can’t put your finger on anything specific, it’s worth taking stock of your concerns. If your instincts are right, speaking up could save their life.
Opioids are very addictive. These factors can increase risk of addiction.
Anyone who takes opioids is at risk of becoming addicted, regardless of age, social status or ethnic background. Some factors do increase a person’s risk of opioid addiction even before they start taking these drugs — legally or otherwise. One may have an increased risk of opioid addiction if they:
- Are younger in age, specifically the teens or early 20s
- Are living in stressful circumstances, including being unemployed or living below the poverty line
- Have a personal or family history of substance abuse
- Have a history of problems with work, family and friends
- Have had legal problems in the past, including DUIs
- Are in regular contact with high-risk people or high-risk environments where there’s drug use
- Have struggled with severe depression or anxiety
- Tend to engage in risk-taking or thrill-seeking behavior
- Use tobacco heavily
Signs of opioid abuse may be hard to see clearly, especially in someone you love.
People who are addicted to opioids may still hold down jobs and other responsibilities, maintaining the appearance of stability at work and home. Over time, however, the addiction is likely to lead to serious problems across the board. When a person is addicted to a drug, they will continue to use the drug even when it makes their life worse.
Common signs of opioid addiction include:
- Regularly taking an opioid in a way not intended by the doctor who prescribed it, including taking more than the prescribed dose or taking the drug for the way it makes a person feel
- Taking opioids “just in case,” even when not in pain
- Mood changes, including excessive swings from elation to hostility
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Borrowing medication from other people or “losing” medications so that more prescriptions must be written
- Seeking the same prescription from multiple doctors, in order to have a “backup” supply
- Poor decision-making, including putting themselves and others in danger
It’s common — and entirely human — to avoid addressing your concerns for fear your relationship or family will fall apart.
You may convince yourself that you’d know it was time for action if your loved one’s addiction was truly serious. Even doctors may overlook common signs of opioid abuse, assessing the people they treat through the lens of “knowing them” versus an objective assessment of opioid-related problems.
Some addiction experts now recommend that doctors interview family members as part of routine follow-up care for a person taking opioid medications. But don’t wait to be asked before you voice your concerns. A person addicted to opioids, or any substance, is much more likely to recover if their friends and family refuse to ignore or tolerate the problem.
If you think your loved one may be addicted to opioids, reach out to their doctor right away. They are a critical partner if you determine it’s time to take action. Together, you can determine the best next steps.