What are opioids?
Opioids are drugs that are usually prescribed to treat severe pain. They’re psychoactive drugs, meaning they act in our brains to change our awareness of pain, as well as slow down our breathing, heart rate, thoughts, and actions. There are many different opioids, including morphine, heroin, hydromorphone (Dilaudid) and codeine (in products like Tylenol 3).
How they’re used
People use opioids for a variety of reasons. While they can be helpful for pain relief, some people use them for relief from anxiety or to experience a “high”. Others use prescription opioids (like methadone, buprenorphine/naloxone) to help reduce dependence on other opioids.
How they affect us
The effects of opioids can be different for different people. In the beginning, most people will feel relaxed, drowsy, and calm. But as use (and the risk of withdrawal) increases, people may feel unwell and experience anxiety and insomnia. Repeatedly using the drug to feel relaxed, reduce anxiety, or for reasons other than as prescribed may harm our health or relationships and lead to dependence.
Like all drugs, opioids have the potential to be harmful. Even a single use of an opioid by a person who’s never used one before can lead to serious harms like infections and diseases from sharing needles, overdose, or even death.
Using prescription opioids for reasons other than the prescribed medical purpose can be dangerous. Buying and using drugs from unknown sources can also be dangerous. Opioids from sources other than a pharmacy or healthcare provider may not be legitimate pharmaceutical pills, even if they look like they are. These drugs are often impure and unpredictable in strength, making them very dangerous.
Opioid use can also lead to dependence—that’s when a person is so used to the drug being in their body that when it’s taken away they experience severe withdrawal symptoms like uneasiness, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and craving for the drug. Tolerance can also develop with continued use of an opioid, which means that increasingly large doses are needed to get the same effects. This also puts the person at increased risk of overdose and death.
Lowering the risk
Always follow the dosage instructions—using a drug more often than prescribed can be dangerous, so watch how much you use. Check with your healthcare provider or pharmacist about the effects of a prescribed opioid on physical and mental functioning. If you choose to use illegal drugs, start with a small amount whenever you get a new supply, clean your hands, drug using supplies and injection site, and never use while alone. Always have naloxone on hand whenever using—it can temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and allow time for medical help to arrive.
Signs of an overdose
Signs of opioid overdose include:
- The person can’t be woken up
- Slow, irregular breathing
- Slow or no pulse
- Gurgling sounds or choking
- Blue lips or nails
- Pale, cool skin
If someone you know is showing signs of an opioid overdose, call 911 right away.
Visit http://www.nsnaloxone.com/ for more information on Naloxone and opioids.
When to seek help
Using opioids is a problem when it negatively affects your life or the lives of others. Speak with your healthcare provider if you feel your use of opioids has become a problem for you or others.
The two main treatment options for opioid addiction are professional counselling and opioid agonist therapies (using methadone or buprenorphine/naloxone). The combination of both treatments is often used and is more beneficial than one method alone.
Wellness Together Canada
Wellness Together Canada is a mental health and substance use website to support people across Canada and Canadians living abroad in both official languages. They provide the following resources for you at no cost:
Mental Health 101
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Take Home Naloxone Program
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Geriatric Psychiatry Outpatient Program
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Mood Disorders Clinic
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First Responders Assist
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Inpatient Withdrawal Management Unit
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Community Support Service (Adults)
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Child and Adolescent Services
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