The Dangers of Opioid Abuse

When someone goes to the emergency room with a possible opioid overdose, it’s usually easy to spot. Some of the signs include pale, clammy skin, blue or in severe cases, black lips and fingers, “nodding,” in and out of consciousness, and scratching at the skin due to the way opioids make it itch.

In the case of an opioid overdose, it is essential to get medical help before the effects become fatal. Late stages of an overdose on opioids will include choking and gargling noises, and this is when the substances have stopped the ability to breathe. Usually, this is when the person overdosing has a very short amount of time to live.

While this might seem like a dramatic scenario for drugs commonly used in non-fatal situations, every day, 78 Americans die from opioid overdoses. Unfortunately, the amount of overdoses seems likely to rise, as the number of opioid prescriptions in the United States has almost quadrupled since 1999.

How Opioid Abuse Starts

Heather Press started drinking and using marijuana in her early teens, but it was not long before her drug abuse began to spread to more harmful drugs. Growing up in a home where drugs and alcohol were commonplace, she moved to prescription pills such as Xanax and other painkillers. Unfortunately for Press, this intensified use culminated in heroin addiction.

Thankfully, Press, at the age of thirty, is now capable of sharing her story as a drug- and alcohol-free woman. However, she knows that she is extremely lucky to be in that position today. For many, the experience of going from prescription drug use to heroin use results in death. “When the disease of addiction grabs ahold of you, it does not want to let go,” said Press. Her path to recovery was a rocky road, but she is fortunate to be reaping the benefits of a sober lifestyle today.

Press was more fortunate than Laura McCaughey. Shortly after graduating from high school, her heroin problem caused her to pass out behind the wheel of her car. She ended up running her car into a telephone pole. Despite receiving an OWI (Operating While Intoxicated citation) that night, the drug had such a strong hold on her that she overdosed at least three more times. Injections saved her life on each occasion.

McCaughey, who grew up in a normal, middle-class home, was an honor student and three-sport athlete. “I was a smart kid. I made my own decisions,” she said. “I was fully capable of being able to do that. It was curiosity, but there’s something that clearly works differently in my head to say that no red flags were raised, nothing that said you need to get out of this situation.” Despite her intelligence and upbringing, the addiction was powerful enough to take over her life. She lost the support of several friends and family members before she was lucky enough to find her sobriety.

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Why Opioids Are Easy to Obtain

Opioids are pain-relieving drugs that affect both the brain and the body. They include prescription drugs such as morphine, OxyContin, Norco, and fentanyl, as well as the illegal drug heroin.

The misuse of prescription opioids has increased because doctors are overprescribing painkillers. It has gotten so bad that the United States alone consumes more than 80 percent of the global opioid supply. For that reason, the abuse of opioid painkillers and heroin (a drug that gives users a cheaper yet similar high) has gone through the roof. In 2020, the number of heroin overdose deaths was almost seven times higher than it was in 1999.

“While there are several people who are abusing this class of drugs, there are also many patients who legitimately need them for pain relief,” said Renae Chestnut, the dean of Drake University’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. “So, as we increase the regulations and access to these drugs, many of the patients who legitimately need them could be harmed.”

It is also becoming more common for college kids to hold “pharm parties.” These are gatherings where kids steal pills from their parents’ or grandparents’ medicine cabinets and dump them in a bowl, trying the drugs to see if they have any effect.

Dangerous Side Effects of Opioid Abuse

Because of the intense highs that opioids have on the brain, users can sometimes show signs of addiction within only three days of first use. Opioid addiction is a slippery slope for college students because the side effects can potentially derail an individual’s life educationally, socially, and even professionally down the line. Some of the more severe symptoms of opioid abuse include:

  • Abusers often feel more foggy-headed and drowsy, making it harder to focus on lectures, exams, and job tasks.
  • Constant constipation issues can make social situations a hassle.
  • Breathing problems and other respiratory issues can become serious health issues.
  • Depression can create heightened levels of anxiety and a feeling of loneliness.
  • High levels of agitation can put strains on relationships.
  • Permanent brain and liver damage.
  • Potential deaths from overdoses.

Opioid Abuse Statistics

While many think that younger people are less prone to becoming addicted to opioids, that is a complete myth. Over 2,500 children between the ages of 12 and 17 abuse a prescription pain reliever for the first time every day. Here are other alarming facts about young people and opioid use:

  • Six percent of 17-to 25-year-olds have abused prescription drugs in the past month.
  • A study found that teens who have taken prescription opioid pain medications before Grade 12 are 33 percent more likely to abuse between the ages of 19 and 25.
  • A survey found that half of teens believe that prescription drugs are safer than illegal street drugs.
  • Fewer than 12 percent of teens who report substance use disorder or dependence symptoms receive any treatment for these conditions.
  • Overwhelmingly, the most common reason teens do not receive treatment is that they do not perceive a need for it.
  • Michigan was one of 15 states to see a significant rise in opioid-related deaths over 2013-2014, rising 13.2 percent in that period.
  • Prescription opioids contributed to the deaths of more than 500 Michigan residents in 2014. Heroin contributed to the deaths of more than 400.
  • More than 1,700 Michigan residents died from drug-related causes in 2014.
  • The state of Michigan experiences more deaths due to drug-related overdoses than to car accidents.

Types of Opioids

All opioids are dangerous if misused, but these are some of the most frequent opioids that are abused.

Popular Opioids on College Campuses


Fentanyl is an opioid that is used as anesthesia to help prevent pain after medical procedures. It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It is an extremely dangerous drug to use outside of a hospital because the differences between lethal doses and therapeutic doses are very small. Since fentanyl is such a strong drug, it has strong effects on the body:

  • Significant swelling of the hands, feet, and ankles.
  • Lethargy and shortness of breath.
  • Constant headaches and migraines accompanied by nausea and vomiting.
  • Potential addiction often leads to a lethal overdose.


Norco is an opioid pain reliever (hydrocodone) and cough suppressant combined with another pain reliever, acetaminophen. Doctors prescribe it for moderate to severe pain. Norco is one of the more dangerous medications for opioid addicts because of how easy it is to obtain. Some of the side effects of Norco abuse include:

  • Seizures and convulsions.
  • Confusion and unusual thoughts or behavior.
  • Liver problems can lead to nausea, stomach pain, and jaundice (a condition that turns the skin, eyes, and mouth yellow).
  • Problems with infertility and sex drive.


OxyContin is a highly prescribed drug used to manage strong pain. People commonly abuse it to experience euphoric highs. This is because using OxyContin creates a sudden dopamine rush in the brain. This satisfying feeling might lead people down the path of addiction. Some of the other side effects OxyContin can create include:

  • Jerky muscle movements, spasms, and reduced reaction to stimuli.
  • Slowing of the heart and lungs, which limits oxygen delivery to the rest of the body, including the brain.
  • Effects on the gastrointestinal tract include severe constipation and persistent vomiting.
  • When injected, it OxyContin can block the bloodstream, causing infection and even putting the user at risk for AIDS or HIV.

Potential Gateway to a Heroin Addiction

Many opioid abusers start out by taking pills from a family member’s medicine cabinet, thinking that these prescription medications are safer than an illicit (illegal) drug. What they typically fail to realize is that prescription opioids affect the same area of the brain that heroin does, making them highly addictive. Once users become hooked on opioids, they start on a path that can be extremely difficult to leave.

Once addicted, opioid abusers attempt to get their hands on more opioids or replace their habit with a similar, yet dangerous, illegal drug. Often, this drug is heroin. In fact, around half of young heroin abusers were previously prescription opioid abusers.

About 23 percent of people who use heroin end up becoming dependent on it, making it one of the most addictive drugs in the world. It is also a drug that raises the chance of the user contracting AIDS or HIV, as it is often injected. Since heroin is extremely addictive and costs money, abusers may turn to crime to pay for their habits. The stress created by the drug also puts the user at a higher risk of suffering through emotional consequences.

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Why Young Adults Are Afraid to Seek Help

While it may seem like a logical decision for those addicted to opioids, Adderall, or other drugs to immediately seek help, there are a variety of social, financial, and other issues that may be holding them back from seeking treatment. Here are some of the more common reasons why some who struggle with substance use disorder disorders choose to not seek help:

  • More than 32 percent of drug users either do not have adequate health coverage or the funds to pay for care, per the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  • Many students worry about taking time from their educations or jobs to seek treatment.
  • Students are afraid of telling family and friends about their addiction because they do not want to disappoint them.
  • Physical dependence is too strong for users to stop their drug use.

Finding Opioid Abuse Treatment

Thankfully there are a wide variety of treatment options specifically designed to cure opioid addiction. It is important, however, that the abuser finds help as soon as possible. The longer someone abuses drugs and the more drugs they consume, the more they place themselves in harm’s way. The following treatment options can help you get on your way to a new life free of opioid addiction.

  • MAT – Medically Assisted Treatment 
  • Holistic Treatment – Teaches natural ways to cope with pain, triggers, and cravings.
  • Dual Diagnosis- Assess patients for underlying mental health issues that could be leading to substance use disorder. Puts patients in contact with psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors in the area they live.
  • 12-Step Treatment – The oldest and most tried and true treatment option that teaches people how to live a lifestyle that will keep them sober. Our 12-step program will find all local 12-step support groups with meeting dates and locations in your area.
  • Call us anytime to begin a conversation about your recovery from opioid addiction. We will work diligently to get you into one of our centers as soon as possible and with little to no out-of-pocket costs to you.

Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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