There is a problem facing this country. It is an issue that affects people of every age and ethnicity. States across the country are pouring out billions of dollars annually to stem the tide of the opioid epidemic, but the prognosis is not good.

To better understand how this plague affects individuals, it is vital to understand opioids. Despite working on similar receptors in the human brain, opioids and opiates are actually different from one another. Many people assume that these two terms mean one and the same, but some key differences do exist. There may not be much variance in the ways they affect us, but how they originate is another matter entirely.

Opioids are man-made drugs produced in laboratories, or in processing facilities for illicit drug-trade purposes. They can be categorized as either being fully or semi-synthetic, but regardless or designation, opioids are chemically manufactured by nature. Some familiar and newer examples of opioids include hydrocodone, oxycodone, carfentanil, and fentanyl.

Opiates, on the other hand, are produced from naturally occurring opium poppies. Besides opium itself, alkaloids found within the plant are the basis for pain-relieving drugs like morphine and codeine, but also illegal substances like heroin. Technically, morphine, codeine, and heroin are considered both opioids and opiates. The term opioid is a blanket term for all naturally occurring opiates and man-made opioid drugs. As a general rule of thumb, all opiates are opioids, but not all opioids are opiates.

Opioid overdoses are a daily occurrence in the United States. Identifying the signs and symptoms of an opioid overdose can put you or a loved one on the right path toward treatment.

Opiate Overdose Symptoms

Despite their inherent differences in origin, opiate and opioid symptoms are often interchangeable. When thinking of either, the first point that should come to mind is breathing. Opioids affect the respiratory system and suppress proper inhalation and exhalation. Respiratory depression, or shallow breathing, can cause coma and death. Suffocation from opioid use can kill.

Opiate Overdose Signs

Knowing when a recreational experience with opiates is devolving into an emergency could save a life. Perceptible warning signs of an opiate overdose include:

  • Nausea: may include vomiting, dry heaving, and gurgling noises
  • Delirium: confusion or slurred words, if they are capable of speech
  • Limpness: motor functions may cease entirely
  • Cyanosis: distinctive purple, red, or even blue skin, fingernails and lips
  • Mood swings: these can be mild or severe, with individuals displaying joy one minute and fury the next

Moreover, three pervasive signs are commonplace during an opiate overdose: unconsciousness, contracted pupils and respiratory depression. Collectively, this may be referred to as an opioid overdose triad. Referencing these symptoms during an overdose triage situation is imperative.

There is no catch-all when it comes to overdose signs. Any single sign could be indicative of an overdose. Just because multiple signs do not present themselves doesn’t mean the scenario is any less dire. When lives are at stake, assuming the worst is good. It means an individual can receive the best possible outcome if treatment is needed after all.

Opiate Overdose Treatment

Suspected opiate overdoses should be treated by qualified medical professionals. There is no alternative to swift and effective care. However, there are steps that can be taken when an overdose is suspected to prolong life and make medical intervention more likely. As always, dialing 911 is the first step to any emergency, overdose or otherwise.

Once first responders are contacted, one must determine whether the victim is specifically experiencing an opioid overdose as opposed to another type of drug. Opioid overdoses can be halted by the drug naloxone (brand-name Narcan). This anti-overdose compound is a stabilizer of sorts; it won’t cure or treat the overdose, but it will provide people with time to seek proper treatment.

Naloxone use does have its repercussions. Many opiate overdose victims find the days or weeks following being revived with naloxone to be extremely uncomfortable as they will be in acute withdrawal. The downside of Narcan use is that some people may assume that they can be revived if necessary. This nonchalant attitude can raise a person’s risk of a fatal overdose.

With opiate addiction currently scouring the country, it is problems like these that society will have to face more and more in the years to come. But, any life saved from the overdose epidemic today is another opportunity to fight the epidemic tomorrow.

You can overcome opiate addiction — the first step is asking for help when you need it. The Recovery Village has allowed countless people to find the light at the end of the tunnel of substance use disorder. Let us help you, too. Intake coordinators are available to talk 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and same day admittance is available. Reach out today to learn more. 

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Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD
Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.