Long-Term Health Risks of Opiate Addiction

Opiates are very strong narcotic drugs that can bring users a sense of euphoria and freedom from pain. These are considered some of the most powerful, and the most addictive, substances available in the world today, and they’re responsible for a large amount of the addictions therapists treat in rehab programs all around the world. While heroin is the most instantly recognizable of all the opiates, synthetic versions of opiates, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, work in much the same way and can bring about many of the same effects. People who abuse these drugs may also use some of the same methods to take the drugs that were perfected by heroin addicts, and some of these drug-taking habits can be incredibly dangerous.

People who take opiates may enjoy the sensations the drugs bring about, but the drugs and the addictions they fuel may ruin their friendships, their economic health and their home lives. People who are addicted to opiates may also face real and lasting health effects due to longstanding drug abuse.

Infectious Risks

Opiates work by latching to specific receptors scattered throughout the body and the brain. While people could swallow or sniff some types of opiates in order to get the drugs to connect with the receptors, most addicts find that they can achieve the greatest high in this shortest amount of time if they mix the drugs with some sort of liquid (or buy them in liquid form) and inject the drugs directly into the bloodstream with needles. This might be the most effective way to take drugs in order to cause euphoria, but it can be disastrous in terms of health, as many people who inject drugs also inject infections. People who inject drugs may share needles with other people, and even the tiniest amount of a virus located on a needle could translate into an infection when that needle is used again.

For decades, injectable drug use has been linked with the HIV virus that leads to AIDS. People who inject heroin face a very real risk of infection with this deadly disease, due to sharing needles with those infected. It’s hard to overstate the risk of obtaining HIV through needle sharing. In China, for example, more than half of the people who have HIV inject drugs, according to an overview article in the journal Science. While HIV infections can be managed in such a way that people who are infected can live for years after becoming infected, people may also go for years without knowing that they have HIV, and they may allow the disease to progress to an almost unmanageable form before they get help. People who are addicted to heroin, and live disordered lives as a result, might be at high risk for this particular problem.

hiv & AidsWhile HIV/AIDS might be the best known of the infections that can impact opiate users who inject drugs, there are other infections that can also hitch a ride on a needle and wreak havoc on a person’s body. These infections include hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

Some infections develop in much more sinister ways. For example, in 2010, the Health Protection Agency reported that a heroin user in London developed anthrax through heroin injection, and several other cases had been confirmed in Scotland. At the time, the agency felt sure the infections had developed because the supply of heroin had been contaminated with the virus directly, although they were not sure why dealers would infect their drugs in this way. It’s nearly impossible for people to determine whether or not their drugs are contaminated with infections such as anthrax, so this remains a very real risk for people who abuse drugs that they buy from street dealers.

Other infections develop in the medium addicts use to prepare their drugs. In a hospital or a laboratory setting, medical professionals use care to prepare injections using sterile fluids, and they always swab the skin before they plunge the needle in. People who use drugs on the street, however, may not use any of these types of precautions, and they may inject themselves with tainted fluids as a result. For example, a study in the Journal of Medical Microbiology found that heroin users were developing a specific type of Candida infection as that bacteria liked to live in lemon juice heroin addicts used as a solvent. Infections like this can turn into abscesses – deep pockets of infection that travel beneath the skin. Left untreated, these abscesses can move into the bloodstream, and they can be fatal.
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Heart Damage

Street heroin can sometimes be cut with materials such as:

  • Talcum powder
  • Sugar
  • Instant coffee
  • Candy, such as tootsie rolls
  • Brick dust

Prescription medications containing opiate-like ingredients might not contain these sorts of hazardous ingredients, but they can contain inactive ingredients that help the medications to stick together. These ingredients may be harmless when they pass through the digestive tract, but when they are injected, they can cause problems.

Injecting these sorts of ingredients means placing somewhat insoluble or definitely insoluble particles directly into the bloodstream. These tiny molecules can move to the soft tissues of the heart and create small pockets of infection. These small pockets of inflammation can lead to heart failure, or even death, and they’re quite common in people who inject drugs. For example, in a study published in the journal Forensic Science International, the number of inflammatory cells in the hearts of people who had died from heroin abuse were up fivefold when compared to people who had died who did not take heroin. It’s clear that heroin can do a severe amount of damage in the hearts of people who take it.
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drugs and the brainMental Health and Cognition Issues

It’s no secret that having an addiction can be hard on a person’s mental health and sense of self. As the addiction begins to take over, and the person begins to lose control of the ability to think clearly, plan for the future and make good decisions, people can begin to feel lost and out of sorts. Depression can quickly set in when people feel this way. Not surprisingly, depression is quite common in people who abuse opiates. In a study published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry, 17 percent of people who entered a drug addiction program for opiate addiction had symptoms of major depression, and at least 60 percent has at least some symptoms of mild depression. While this study clearly indicates a link between depression and opiate addiction in many people, there are some specific groups of addicts who might be at an even higher risk for depression. For example, according to a study in the journal European Psychiatry, the risk of depression is even higher in people who abuse opiates in combination with alcohol. It’s possible that people like this suffer from more extreme forms of life disruption, and therefore have higher rates of depression as a result, but it’s also possible that these chemicals do specific damage to parts of the brain that regulate emotion, and this can cause depression.

There is some evidence that suggests that opiate addictions can cause longstanding deficits in a person’s ability to think clearly. These so-called cognitive functioning deficits can make it hard for people to hold onto their jobs or do the sorts of things they’ll need to do in order to move forward with their lives. For example, a study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that 60 percent of people who were currently using opiates showed significant cognitive impairment as measured on tests, when compared to people who did not abuse opiates. This might sound serious, but this study does contain good news. People who stopped abusing opiates fared much better on these tests than people who were still abusing. This seems to indicate that the damage doesn’t necessarily remain permanent.
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Additional Complications

There are other problems that might strike smaller groups of opioid abusers. These include:

  • Scarred veins
  • Collapsed veins
  • Pneumonia
  • Tuberculosis

Some people even develop specific types of arthritis due to the drugs. According to a study published in the journal Seminars in Arthritis and Rheumatism, over a five-year period, 36 cases of septic arthritis were diagnosed in 35 heroin addicts. While about 90 percent of these cases responded to antibiotic treatment, eight of these cases required a surgical intervention. Arthritis can be incredibly painful, and going through surgery can be quite expensive, so this isn’t a minor concern.
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Moving Forward

Reading through a laundry list of medical complications due to opiate abuse can be incredibly frightening. Family members of opiate addicts might be terrified to even think about the sorts of health problems their loved ones might be putting their bodies through due to abuse, and those who abuse opiates might have concerns of their own. As they learn more about the addiction, and the serious consequences an addiction can have, they might be desperate to stop using opiates, but they may also find that they’re unable to stop without help. In fact, they may try to stop on their own repeatedly and find that they’re unable to make the quitting stick for more than a few days or weeks. This is when a rehab facility can provide lifesaving help. In a rehab facility, such as ours at Axis, people who are addicted can continue to learn more about their addictions, and they can develop a series of skills they can use to keep the addiction in check for the rest of life. The risks of allowing an addiction to continue are clearly much too high. It’s best to deal with the issue now. Please call us at Axis to find out more about our program.
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