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March 1, 2024

Side Effects of Opioids

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Opioids are mainly prescribed for pain management. Although many of the common side effects of opioids associated with initial treatment are temporary, some can persist for extended periods, particularly with long-term use. Read on to learn more about the adverse effects of opioids and discover how to connect with evidence-based care if you have been abusing this class of medication.

What Are the Major Side Effects of Opioids?

Prescription opioids are often indicated for the treatment of moderate to severe pain. Even when taken as directed by a physician, though, opioid usage carries inherent risks. Consistent consumption of these prescribed drugs can lead to increased tolerance and dependence in an individual, necessitating larger or more frequent dosages.

Opioid drug side effects are commonplace, presenting on a spectrum and affecting people in different ways. The effects of opioids range in severity and frequency, but there are several core effects that are more commonly observed.

  • Gastrointestinal distress: Opioids often cause gastrointestinal issues, such as constipation, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. These effects can be particularly uncomfortable and may require additional treatment to manage.
  • Sedation and drowsiness: A state of sedation is a common side effect, with individuals experiencing drowsiness or a general sense of fatigue. This can impair a person’s ability to perform daily tasks, operate machinery, or drive.
  • Respiratory depression: Opioids can significantly slow down breathing, which is a dangerous side effect known as respiratory depression. This risk is heightened with larger doses or when combined with other depressants.
  • Cognitive impairment: People may experience confusion, poor judgment, and memory issues as a result of opioid use. These cognitive effects can affect both personal and professional aspects of life.
  • Mood changes: Opioids can alter mood, potentially leading to symptoms of depression or, conversely, feelings of euphoria, which can contribute to the development of dependence.
  • Tolerance and dependence: With prolonged use, individuals may develop tolerance, requiring higher doses to achieve the same pain relief, and dependence, experiencing withdrawal symptoms if the medication is reduced or stopped.

Long-Term Side Effects of Opioids

What are the long term side effects of opioids? The prolonged use of opioids can lead to a series of long-term side effects that may have lasting implications for a person’s health and quality of life. Long-term negative side effects of opioids include:

Physical dependence and addiction

Over time, the body can become accustomed to the presence of opioids, leading to physical dependence. Addiction, characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite harmful consequences, can also develop, creating a cycle that can be difficult to break.


A paradoxical response to opioids is opioid-induced hyperalgesia, where the person becomes more sensitive to pain over time, even as they continue taking pain medication.

Hormonal dysfunction

Chronic opioid use can disrupt the normal functioning of the endocrine system, leading to hormonal imbalances. This may result in conditions like reduced libido, infertility, or depression.

Immune system suppression

There is evidence to suggest that long-term opioid use can suppress the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections and diseases.

Neurological impact

Prolonged opioid use can lead to changes in the brain’s structure and function, affecting mood, behavior, and cognitive processes.

Mental health issues

Long-term use can contribute to or worsen mental health disorders like depression or anxiety, partly due to the neurochemical changes in the brain.

Addressing these long-term side effects often requires a comprehensive treatment approach that includes medical intervention, counseling, and support for the individual’s mental and emotional well-being.

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Short-Term Side Effects of Opioids

The short-term side effects of opioids are normally those experienced soon after taking the medication and they may diminish as the body metabolizes the drug. These effects can include:


Opioids can make a person feel unusually sleepy or sedated, which can be dangerous when performing tasks that require alertness.


Opioids affect the gastrointestinal tract, leading to slowed digestion and constipation, often requiring intervention to alleviate discomfort.

Nausea and vomiting

Many individuals experience nausea or vomiting as a reaction to opioids, which can be distressing and may require additional medication to manage.


Opioids can cause confusion and disorientation, increasing the risk of accidents and falls, especially in older adults.

Respiratory depression

One of the most serious short-term side effects is the slowing of breathing. Respiratory depression can be life-threatening at high doses or when combined with other depressants.


The feeling of intense joy or pleasure, known as euphoria, can be a side effect that may contribute to the development of opioid misuse and addiction.

Anyone who is prescribed opioids should monitor these short-term side effects closely to manage them effectively and prevent them from becoming long-term issues.

Treatment for Side Effects of Opioids

The management of opioid side effects is a core aspect of treatment for those using these medications for pain relief. Here’s how some of the common side effects can be treated:

  • Managing GI symptoms: For constipation, healthcare providers may prescribe laxatives or stool softeners. Diet modifications, like increased fiber intake and hydration, can also be beneficial. For nausea, antiemetic medications can help alleviate symptoms.
  • Addressing sedation and drowsiness: People are often advised to avoid activities that require mental alertness – driving, for instance – when experiencing these side effects. Adjusting the dosage or timing of medication can also help, as well as switching to a different opioid that may have fewer sedative effects.
  • Combatting respiratory depression: This side effect may require immediate medical attention. In a medical setting, respiratory depression can be treated with opioid antagonists like naloxone to quickly reverse the effects. Long-term strategies may include adjusting the opioid dosage or switching to a different pain management regimen.
  • Cognitive function enhancement: If opioids cause cognitive impairment, a dosage reduction or a switch to a different analgesic may be necessary. Cognitive exercises and activities may also be recommended to help improve brain function.
  • Stabilizing mood changes: When opioids cause mood swings or depression, mental health support through counseling or therapy is essential. In some cases, medications like antidepressants may be prescribed alongside close monitoring of the individual’s psychological state.
  • Alleviating pruritus: Antihistamines can be effective in treating the itching that sometimes accompanies opioid use. Topical ointments and creams may also provide relief.
  • Preventing tolerance and dependence: Gradual tapering of the medication can help manage dependence and minimize withdrawal symptoms. For those experiencing tolerance, a healthcare provider may suggest a drug holiday or rotation to a different class of pain medication.
  • Managing hyperalgesia: Reducing the opioid dose or switching to a different type of pain medication can help alleviate increased sensitivity to pain.
  • Hormonal therapy: If opioids disrupt hormonal balance, hormone replacement therapy or other hormonal interventions may be considered.
  • Boosting the immune system: For immune suppression, a review of the opioid therapy is necessary, along with measures to strengthen the immune system through diet, supplements, and lifestyle changes.
  • Addressing mental health issues: Ongoing mental health support, including psychotherapy and psychiatric medications, may be needed to address co-occurring mental health issues like anxiety or depression related to opioid use.


Are there any life-threatening side effects of opioids?

Yes, opioids can have life-threatening side effects, including respiratory depression (slowed breathing), which can lead to hypoxia (insufficient oxygen reaching the brain), coma, and ultimately death, especially when taken in high doses or combined with other depressants like alcohol or benzodiazepines.

What do opioids do to your body?

Opioids bind to mu-opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and other areas, reducing the perception of pain and producing feelings of euphoria. That said, they can also slow breathing, cause constipation, and lead to physical dependence and addiction with prolonged use.

How are opioids dangerous?

Opioids are dangerous because they pose a high risk of addiction and overdose, which can be fatal. Overdose can cause severe respiratory depression, leading to death. The risk increases when opioids are taken in ways not prescribed, combined with other substances, or used by individuals with lower tolerance levels.

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Get Treatment for Opioid Addiction at Gratitude Lodge

As the opioid epidemic continues to claim lives in the United States, more people than ever require effective addiction treatment. Choose Gratitude Lodge in Southern California and begin your recovery the right way with medical detox. FDA-approved medications will reduce the intensity of the withdrawal process, while continuous clinical care mitigates the chance of relapse or complications disrupting your early recovery.

During ongoing inpatient treatment at our Long Beach or Newport Beach rehabs, you will access a personalized blend of the following treatments:

  • Psychotherapies
  • Medication-assisted treatment
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Holistic therapies
  • Individual counseling
  • Aftercare support

Call Gratitude Lodge today at 800-994-2184 and begin your recovery in Southern California right away.

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Jenni Bussi

Jenni Busse MS, LPCC

Jenni Busse MS, LPSS is the Clinical Director at Gratitude Lodge. Jenni oversees the clinical program and the clinical team at Gratitude Lodge as a whole. Jenni has worked in treatment for almost 14 years. Her background as a licensed therapist and her passion for helping others intersected with addiction recovery when she started working primarily in detox residential treatment.

Drug detox can vary according to the patient’s addiction factors, including the substance abused, how long the addiction has lasted, the patient’s medical condition, if any other disorders are present, and more. Our skilled and credentialed team at Gratitude Lodge work closely with every patient going through drug detox, facilitating the beginnings of a successful recovery at our rehab addiction centers in Orange County, CA.

Drug detox can vary according to the patient’s addiction factors, including the substance abused, how long the addiction has lasted, the patient’s medical condition, if any other disorders are present, and more. Our skilled and credentialed team at Gratitude Lodge work closely with every patient going through drug detox.

Many patients don’t realize the toxicity of prolonged alcohol abuse and how it affects the body. Alcohol detox at the luxurious rehab addiction centers at Gratitude Lodge leeches your body of these toxins in preparation for successful treatment for drugs and alcohol abuse. Alcohol detox may not take as long or produce severe withdrawal symptoms, but it is still an essential beginning to your recovery.

Many patients don’t realize the toxicity of prolonged alcohol abuse and how it affects the body. Alcohol detox at the luxurious rehab addiction centers at Gratitude Lodge leeches your body of these toxins in preparation for successful treatment for drugs and alcohol abuse.
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An essential part of your treatment experience, we offer individual (CBT and DBT talk therapy) and group addiction treatment counseling to help you explore and address the emotional component of addiction, providing you with the tools, self-awareness, and empowerment you need to maintain recovery.
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Medication-Assisted Treatment provides you with FDA-approved medications to help ease the symptoms of withdrawal while you’re in treatment. This makes the detox process easier and safer, as well as increasing the chances of a successful recovery.
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Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been working in the addiction industry for half a decade and has been writing about addiction and substance abuse treatment during that time. He has experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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