The Risks of Injecting Prescription Opioids

Prescription opioids, once considered safe and doctor-approved, have become just as dangerous as heroin. It’s now well-known how basic pain relievers, like Vicodin and codeine, can produce “highs” comparable to heroin when administered in the right way. The risks of injecting prescription opioids have turned pill-popping into a lightweight event where opioid abuse is concerned.

The Dangers of Prescription Opioid Abuse

The pain-relieving properties of prescription opioids, such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, and fentanyl account for much of the danger associated with abusing these drugs. Opioids work to slow down the body’s functions, such as respiration and heart by slowing its chemical processes. These drugs do this by forcing the body’s opioid receptors to secrete large amounts of dopamine and other endorphin chemicals. Chemicals like dopamine play big roles in regulating your perceptions of pleasure and pain, which accounts for the rush of euphoria users experience when abusing opioids.

With repeated use, these drugs change the way the brain and bodywork, causing users to become physically and psychologically dependent. When dependency develops, the body requires ongoing doses, or else you’ll start to experience side effects, which are withdrawal symptoms. Side effects play an active role in driving drug-using behaviors.

Side effect withdrawal symptoms to watch for include:

  • Depression
  • Confused thinking
  • Feeling sleepy
  • Nausea
  • Constipation

What Changes When Injecting Prescription Opioids?

Injecting prescription opioids, also known as “shooting up,” delivers faster and more intense effects compared to smoking or taking pills. Injecting involves crushing up the pill into powder form, mixing it with water, and injecting the mixture into a vein. This method places opioids directly into the bloodstream, allowing the drug to reach the brain within a minute’s time. Prescription opioid injection drug use also provides a workaround for accessing the full potency of extended- and controlled-release drugs like OxyContin all at once, which can be extremely dangerous.

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Risks of Injecting Prescription Opioids

Medical Problems

Considering how injecting prescription opioids takes place under less than sterile conditions, any number of medical conditions can develop over time. Just the act of repeatedly injecting at the same sites increases the risk of developing problems. Veins take a considerable beating in the process so instances of collapsed veins and narrowing or hardening veins are common among intravenous users.

Bacterial infections are another common medical issue. Bacteria spores can enter the bloodstream and gain easy access to the body’s systems. This can lead to serious medical complications, including paralysis and death. For users who share needles, HIV, and hepatitis transmission are also risks of injecting prescription opioids.

Faster Effects

The time it takes an opioid to produce effects varies depending on the method of ingestion. In pill form, it can take up to 30 minutes before feeling any effects. The time for smoking opioids runs around a minute. Injecting prescription opioids produces near-immediate effects, which only increases the degree of damage that can result.

While you may experience an immediate, intense “high,” the drug’s effects wear off faster. The faster the drug’s effects wear off the sooner you’ll likely shoot up again. In effect, you’re getting “high” more often than you would with pills. Under these conditions, risks of injecting prescription opioids loom even larger as your rate of abuse increases.

Faster Rate of Dependence

The physical dependence on opioids can develop quickly, especially when they’re injected. With repeated use, opioid receptors in the brain and central nervous system (CNS) become less sensitive so larger doses must be taken in order to produce the desired effect. In the process, withdrawal symptoms become increasingly worse as chemical imbalances start to grow in the brain and CNS. All of these changes cause you to become physically dependent on the drug.

If you’re injecting prescription opioids, these developments happen at a faster rate. The more often you shoot up, the faster brain and CNS chemical imbalances develop. Once physical dependence takes hold, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to full-blown addiction.

Faster Rate of Addiction

While physical dependence impacts the brain’s physical processes, addiction affects the brain’s psychological processes. The chemical imbalances created by opioid abuse change the brain’s structures and also change how it works. In turn, the areas that regulate perception, thinking, and emotions develop a dependence on the drug’s effects as the structures that house these functions become dependent.

The faster these changes happen, the faster addiction develops. Since injecting prescription opioids causes a faster rate of physical dependence, it also causes a faster rate of psychological dependence or addiction. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, one out of every four patients who receive long-term opioid therapy in a primary care setting develops an addiction. These rates run even higher for recreational opioid users.

Increased Risk of Overdose

The effects of opioid abuse carry a high risk for overdose regardless of how they’re ingested. Since opioids act as depressants, too large a dose can actually shut down essential systems in the body, particularly the respiratory system. Injecting prescription opioids causes a rapid release of the drug into your bloodstream, which greatly increases the risk of overdose.

This risk applies to first-time users and chronic users, alike. An overdose event can be fatal unless needed medical care is administered. Even individuals who survive an overdose are at risk of brain damage due to the lack of oxygen that reaches the brain when the lungs shut down.

After a certain point, there’s no getting around the harmful effects of opioid abuse. When left to its own devices, the problem will only get worse with time. If injecting prescription opioids is affecting you or someone you know, the sooner you get treatment help the easier it will be to recover from the effects of substance use disorder. Opioid rehab centers specialize in providing the types of supports and medical care needed to stop using. From there, you’ll develop the types of coping behaviors and lifestyle practices that support drug-free living.


  • – National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Prescription Opioids”
  • – British Journal of General Practice, “Deep Vein Thromboses in Users of Opioid Drugs: Incidence, Prevalence, and Risk Factors”
  • – Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, “Prescription Opioids – Opioid Overdose”
  • – Sunshine Behavioral Health, “Oxycontin Rehab Centers”

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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