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Here's What Happens If Your Opioid Addiction Goes Untreated

By Gulnaz Khan
Risks include lung injury, heart complications, overdose, and even death.

Opioids are a class of drugs that include prescription pain medications and illegal substances, like heroin. These drugs are often prescribed for pain relief and sometimes produce feelings of euphoria, but prolonged use can lead to dependence and addiction.

In 2018, an estimated 2 million Americans had an opioid use disorder. This chronic condition can be treated with a combination of medication and behavioral therapy. But when left untreated, opioid use can have several health, social, and economic consequences.

Changes to the Brain

  • Tolerance: Opioids can change your brain chemistry. Long-term opioid use increases drug tolerance—this means you need to increase your dose of the drug to experience the same effects.
  • Dependence and Withdrawal: Over time, you may develop drug dependence, which means you experience physical and psychological symptoms when you stop taking the drug. Symptoms of opioid withdrawal include anxiety, diarrhea, muscle aches, fever, vomiting, and sweating.
  • Addiction: Signs of opioid addiction include uncontrollable cravings, inability to stop using the drug, and interference with work, school, and relationships. People with addiction may have difficulty experiencing pleasure from things they used to enjoy, like food and sex.

Risks from Injection

  • Heroin, an injectable opioid drug made from morphine, may increase your risk of contracting HIV, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases due to needle sharing and other risky behaviors associated with its use.
  • Chronic drug injection can cause scarred or collapsed veins, and bacterial infections of the bloodstream and heart.
  • The added ingredients found in heroin can cause infection and clog blood vessels that lead to the kidneys, liver, lungs, and brain.

Overdose and Death

  • Taking too much of an opioid can cause respiratory arrest—this is called an overdose. Signs include clammy skin, limpness of the body, bluish fingernails and lips, vomiting, and an inability to wake. If an overdose is not treated right away, it can lead to loss of consciousness and death.
  • Taking opioids with alcohol or benzodiazepines (tranquilizers) can increase the risk of an overdose.
  • In 2018, 46,802 people died from opioid-related overdoses in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other Medical Complications

  • Lungs and Breathing: Opioids can cause breathing to slow, stop airflow to the lungs, and exacerbate asthma. Chronic heroin users are at risk for pneumonia and tuberculosis because of poor overall health and the drug’s respiratory effects.
  • Sexual Health: Heroin use is associated with sexual dysfunction in men and irregular menstruation in women.
  • Drug Side effects from opioid use include constipation, abdominal pain, insomnia, and acid reflux.
  • Cardiovascular Effects: Opioids are sometimes associated with abnormal heart rate and heart attack.
  • Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome: When a woman takes opioids during pregnancy, her baby may be born dependent and experience withdrawal symptoms. This may require neonatal intensive care and medication.
Treatment & Resources for Opioid Addiction