Painkiller addiction is a serious public health issue. Painkillers are prescribed to control pain of varying degrees, and for severe pain which is chronic and poorly controlled with simpler medicines, doctors may sometimes prescribe stronger painkillers such as opioids and opioid derivatives. While short term, controlled use of such medicines is beneficial in masking pain, unsupervised, or poorly supervised, long term use holds within itself the perils of addiction. Opioid painkillers produce a short-lived euphoria, but they are also addictive. Long-term use of painkillers can lead to physical dependence. The body adapts to the presence of the substance and if one stops taking the drug abruptly, withdrawal symptoms occur.

As with all addictions, addiction to pain medicines can spiral out of control very quickly. It is an addiction of special merits, as often times you may find persons working closely with the health profession as those affected by it due to ease of access, or patients who were prescribed these medicines for control of pain. While the pain may have resolved, the habit has lingered on.

It is estimated that between 26.4 million and 36 million people worldwide suffer from substance use disorders to prescription opioid pain relievers, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Sadly, it is an addiction that is very common behind closed doors, and among celebrities. There have been many high profile celeb-deaths that have been linked to misuse of prescription medication, especially when combined with other substances of abuse such as alcohol.


Some warning signs of potential addiction could include raising your dose without consulting your doctor, or going to several doctors to get prescriptions without telling them about the prescriptions you already have. Being addicted means that your drug use is causing problems in your life but you keep doing it anyway.

As with other types of addiction, the longer someone is actively struggling with an addiction to painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone, the more signs there are apt to be. These include changes in your loved one’s habits that cannot otherwise be explained, such as:

Drowsiness. The person who’s addicted starts nodding off in the middle of conversations, at the dinner table or while watching TV or a movie. (Opioids are depressants, causing breathing to become very shallow in extreme cases; that’s how an overdose happens.)

A change in sleep habits. The individual’s sleep may become prolonged or excessive at times, and then shortened or even non-existent when he or she runs out of the drug.

Frequent flu-like symptoms. In the case of an addiction to opioids nausea, fever and headache aren’t the flu, but rather signs of withdrawal when someone can’t get more of the drug.

Weight loss. Generally, an opioid addict may lose weight from metabolic changes and changes that occur in the reward center of the brain.

Decreased libido. Opioid use lowers testosterone and estrogen levels, which are needed for normal libido and sexual function, as well as processes such as maintaining muscle mass and bone density.

• Reappearance of old habits. For example, the person may begin smoking cigarettes again after a long hiatus.

Loss of relationships. Friendships that were once important may drop in the individual’s estimation or even end.

Changes in work habits such as excessive absences and missing meetings or deadlines. Employment is one of the last losses that occur.

The most important reason to look out for signs of opioid/painkiller addiction is to prevent a possible overdose. Especially prone are individuals who may be mixing their painkiller medication with other substances such as alcohol, or even other medication that can be a deadly combo when used together.

Read more about the opioid epidemic here.

Dr. Annie

Physician, mom and wife

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