Opioids are a class of drugs used as analgesics. They relieve pain for chronic backaches, cancer treatments, and more. They function by attaching themselves to your brain’s opioid receptors and acting throughout your nervous system, effectively blocking pain signals.
Among the various opioids (legal or otherwise), there are synthetic opioids: a kind of opioid that is created in a professional lab to fulfill a specific function. They are often related to pain relief or anesthesia.
Much has been said about synthetic opioids and opioids in general, especially in the context of the Opioid Epidemic. There’s a lot of misinformation and half-truths out there, so in this article, we’ll provide you with the basic knowledge you need to understand what they are, their uses, and their potential risks.
What are Synthetic Opioids?
You’ll understand synthetic opioids better in the context of the other types of opioids available. The main types of opioids are:
- Natural opioids: opioids derived from poppy plants (Papaver somniferum). To extract them, chemists generally dry and crush the poppy plants. They are in the milky sap found in the poppy’s stem and leaves but can also come from its seeds. Morphine and codeine are examples of natural opioids.
- Synthetic opioids: opioids not found in nature. Instead, chemists create them in labs for analgesic and anesthetic purposes. Still, they may also be used in medication-assisted therapy (MAT) to treat addiction to other opioids, such as heroin. Fentanyl and methadone are synthetic opioids. As happens with all different opioids, some people abuse them.
- Semi-synthetic opioids: a combination of naturally-occurring opioids with human-made chemicals. Often used as medical analgesics but also as illegal drugs. The illicit drug heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid obtained by processing morphine through acetylation.
The Side Effects Of Synthetic Opioids
Whether used safely under the supervision of a professional or acquired illegally and abused without any safety protocols, opioids have side effects on your body. When taking illicit opioids, however, you can never really know what they contain and to what degree they will manifest opioid side effects.
These are the most common side effects of synthetic opioids, very similar to the ones from other types of opioids:
- Constriction of the pupils
- Nausea and vomiting
- Urinary retention
- Slow, shallow breathing
Can You Become Addicted To Synthetic Opioids?
Yes, you can. Opioids are among the most addictive substances worldwide, even when used safely under supervision. Addiction to opioids (synthetic or otherwise) is known as opioid abuse disorder.
All kinds of opioids can lead to physical dependence in relatively short periods, like 4 to 8 weeks, to the point that anyone who takes opioids for any reason is at risk of developing an addiction.
Different people are more or less vulnerable to becoming addicted to making matters trickier, and there’s no way to know how you’ll react to them. However, there are known risk factors for opioid addiction. Some of them include the following:
- Past or current substance abuse
- Family history of substance abuse
- Past or present untreated psychiatric disorders
- A high-risk social environment
- A habit of taking risks and seeking thrills
If you or anyone close to you suffers from a combination of these factors, they are at a higher risk of developing a substance abuse disorder, including synthetic opioids. Common signs of opioid addiction include:
- Inability to control opioid use
- Opioid cravings
- Sleep habit disruptions
- Weight loss
- Flu-like symptoms
- Lower sex drive
- Lack of hygiene
- Changes in exercise habits
- Social isolation
- Stealing from family, friends, or businesses to finance opioid use
- Recent financial difficulties
Can You Overdose On Synthetic Opioids?
Yes, you can. In fact, synthetic opioids account for the most opioid-related overdose deaths in the U.S. Synthetic opioid-related overdose deaths are a growing public health problem in the U.S. According to the CDC, there were more than 56,000 deaths involving synthetic opioids in the U.S. in 2020.
Possible synthetic opioid overdose symptoms include:
- Cold, clammy skin
- Blue-tinged skin
- Extreme constriction of the pupils, causing them to become very small
- Breathing failure, potentially leading to death
Are Synthetic Opioids Riskier Than Other Types Of Opioids?
Not necessarily. However, opioids are addictive by their nature and therefore carry being opioids a potentially high risk of addiction.
If you are prescribed a synthetic opioid (such as methadone) by medical professionals, these are some of the guidelines you should follow to take them as safely as possible:
- Take them exactly as prescribed
- Read the instructions before consuming them
- Don’t crush pills. Simply swallow them
- Do not use machinery that can injure you or drive while under the effects of your medications
- If you suffer side effects, contact your doctor
Getting Help For Synthetic Opioids Addiction
If you or someone you know is addicted to synthetic opioids (or any other kind), they need professional medical help to increase the chances of overcoming addiction.
Depending on the severity of the addiction, you or your loved ones may need to go through inpatient or outpatient treatment to perform a safe detox and start the post-withdrawal care that will lay the foundation for a safe and drug-free future.
It will not be easy, but it will be worth it.