Person experiencing signs of opioid addiction.

How to Recognize the Signs of Opioid Addiction

Opioid use disorder is an epidemic in the United States that affects millions of Americans. The widespread use of prescription opioids has led to substance use disorders increasing at an alarming rate and leaves individuals and their loved ones devastated. This makes knowing the signs of opioid addiction incredibly important.

Prescription painkillers, such as Oxycodone, Hydrocodone (Vicodin), and other drugs like fentanyl, are all considered synthetic opioids. Substances like morphine, codeine, and heroin are “opiates,” which are naturally occurring.

Opioids are commonly prescribed for chronic pain management, surgery, dental procedures, and injuries, as they are potent painkillers.

How Does Someone Become Addicted to Opioids?

Like any other form of substance abuse, the user becomes either physically or psychologically dependent on opioids after prolonged use. This happens as a result of the effects of opioids interfering with receptors in your brain (releasing artificial endorphins). This process causes the “high” that the user experiences and leads to your brain depending on these false endorphins. Tolerance, a situation where it takes increasing drug use to get the same or greater effect, occurs rapidly in some individuals taking opiates. This can lead them to seek alternative and often illegal ways to gain access to opiates.

The longer you continue to use an opioid, the higher risk you are for opioid abuse. It is recommended that you limit opioid use for pain treatment as much as possible. The longer you take them, the higher the probability of developing dependence.

Common Signs of Opioid Addiction

Opioid addiction often begins when someone is prescribed opioids for pain management. Many people who are addicted to substances attempt to hide their usage, which makes understanding and recognizing warning signs of addiction very important.

Family members should look out for various health conditions, worsening mental health, and several other changes in well-being.

Taking Larger Quantities

Because of increased dependence on opioids with prolonged use, users experience an increase in their tolerance. As tolerance increases, you can feel the urge to take higher quantities – and more often – to satisfy cravings.

Behavioral Changes

Changes in behavior is common with drug abuse. Oftentimes, these behavioral changes result in issues interacting with others, missing events or special occasions, volatility/mood swings, and risk of harm.

Drastic Weight Fluctuations

Weight changes are a common side effect of opioid abuse. While it varies from person to person, you can see a change in appetite, whether it leads to weight gain or weight loss.

Impaired Cognition

Opioids often lead to problems with cognition. For example, an opioid user may have difficulty learning, have trouble concentrating, making decisions, or feel detached from their surroundings.

Depression & Anxiety

Any kind of addiction presents the risk of developing or worsening an existing mental illness — or even leading to co-occurring disorders. Depression and anxiety are both frequently linked to substance abuse, and behavioral therapy is typically a part of drug abuse treatment programs.

Sudden Struggles in School or Work

Because of the many effects that opioid addiction has on the mind and body, dependence can cause a drop in performance at work or school.

The Biggest Dangers of Opioid Abuse

Not only do you need to look for warning signs but you also need to know the biggest risks associated with long-term opioid abuse – withdrawal and overdose.

Opioid Withdrawals

While quitting opioids is a good thing, it needs to be done safely due to opioid withdrawal. Addiction treatment has a heavy focus on treating withdrawal symptoms, and for good reason.

Withdrawal Symptoms

      • Aches & pains
      • Insomnia
      • Vomiting
      • Tremors
      • Feeling cold

Because of this, someone dealing with opioid addiction should not suddenly stop using without medical assistance. Detoxification is a difficult process that requires health professionals.

Professionals can provide medicines, such as methadone, naltrexone, and buprenorphine, to help manage and alleviate withdrawal symptoms, allowing the detoxification process to continue without major trauma.


The most frightening part of opioid addiction is the risk of an opioid overdose. Opioid overdose can cause difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, and death.

If you see someone that you believe is overdosing, call 911 immediately.

If medical help arrives in time, naloxone (better known as Narcan) can be administered to save lives and reverse overdose effects. Time is of the essence in these situations, so do not hesitate to call 911. The quick arrival of first responders is crucial for saving lives.

What Should You Do?

If you have noticed signs of opioid addiction in a loved one, there are treatment options available to get the necessary help. Healthcare providers offer medications, therapy, and other methods of integrated care to make the detoxification process less traumatic.

In order to help someone who is addicted to opioids, reassure them that while the process can seem scary, professional help from a qualified physician is effective at ending addiction.

If you are looking for addiction treatment, Meridian HealthCare is here to help. Using an integrated care model, we help patients through every aspect of their healthcare journey, including addiction treatment, mental health care, primary care, and more. Contact us to set up an appointment. When you’re ready, so are we.