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Opiates are drugs derived from morphine, which occurs naturally in the seed pod of certain varieties of the poppy plant. Opiates are some of the most commonly abused substances in the United States, and abusing them can quickly lead to addiction and dependence.

Opiate Prescription Painkillers

Opiates are often prescribed for pain and work by reducing the intensity of the pain signals traveling to the brain. They also affect the areas of the brain that control emotion, which further dampens the perception of pain, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The most commonly prescribed opiate painkillers are oxycodone and hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet), which are used to treat a range of painful conditions, from dental emergencies and sprains to burns and other injuries. Morphine is a highly potent opiate painkiller that’s used before and after surgery to reduce severe pain, while codeine is used to alleviate mild pain as well as treat severe diarrhea and coughs.

Opiate painkillers are listed under Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule II drugs are those which have medical value but a high risk of abuse and dependence. Other opioid painkillers include:

People who abuse prescription opioids are also often more likely to abuse other prescription drugs, which can be especially dangerous. Polysubstance abuse, in general, is risky, but using opioids with drugs like Neurontin (gabapentin), Luminal (pentobarbital), and other opioids can have devastating consequences.

Heroin: The Illegal Opiate

Heroin is an illegal opiate that’s listed on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I drugs also carry a high risk of abuse and dependence, but they have no medical value. Around 23 percent of people who abuse heroin become dependent on it, and research shows that abusing prescription opiate painkillers may lead to heroin abuse.

Addiction to Opiates in the U.S.

Opiates are highly addictive due to their euphoric effects and their ability to produce a high degree of tolerance very quickly. This means that due to changes in brain function as an attempt to compensate for the presence of the drug, increasingly higher doses are needed to get the same effects. Over time, this may lead to physical dependence, which means that the brain has begun to operate more “normally” when opiates are present, and withdrawal symptoms set in when opiates are not present.

Around 2.1 million Americans abuse or are addicted to prescription opiate pain relievers, and nearly 500,000 are addicted to heroin. These numbers represent an increase in opiate abuse in past years, and the number of unintentional overdose deaths related to heroin and prescription painkillers has more than quadrupled since 1999.

Aside from the dangers of an opiate overdose, abusing opiates can lead to a number of devastating physical and mental health problems, including organ damage, mental illness and cognitive problems.

Withdrawal and Treatment

Due to the intense withdrawal symptoms associated with opiate dependence, kicking an opiate habit is extremely difficult without professional help. Medical detox, offered through high-quality treatment centers, involves administering medications to help reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms and shorten the duration of detox.

Medications like Suboxone and methadone may be used for long-term maintenance to prevent severe withdrawal and reduce the intensity of cravings so that someone with a heroin addiction can focus on reclaiming his or her life.

If you abuse or are addicted to heroin or opiate painkillers, treatment can help you curb the abuse or beat the addiction through various therapies that will help you address the complex issues behind the abuse. Professional treatment can help you improve your quality of life and learn to enjoy its pleasures without opiates.

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