Select Page


Before exploring opiate addiction treatment, it is helpful to understand what opiates are and how they work in the system of individuals who ingest them. An opiate is a drug derived from or mimicking the effects of the flowering opium poppy plant. Naturally-derived opiates include opium, morphine, codeine, and thebaine. In addition to naturally-derived opiates, there are also semi-synthetic drugs that are synthesized in the laboratory using one of the naturally-occurring opiates, as well as completely synthetic drugs that nonetheless bind to the same opioid receptors in the brain as natural or semi-synthetic opiates. For simplicity’s sake, we will refer to all of these drugs as “opiates” due to the similar way they interact with an individual’s brain, creating the potential for opiate addiction.

A Long History of Use & Abuse

With its use dating back to at least 3400 B.C., opium is one of humanity’s oldest recorded drugs. The earliest mentions in recorded history are among the Sumerians who referred to the opium poppy as the “joy plant,” cultivating it in lower Mesopotamia for its euphoria-inducing effects. They later passed the knowledge of opium production and use on to the Assyrians from which it spread to other ancient civilizations such as the Babylonians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Greeks. [1]

Opium and later opiates such as morphine were so effective at relieving pain and treating other conditions such as diarrhea that they remained in use until the modern era. However, even in the distant past, individuals also began to take note of the dangerous potential for opiate addiction, without necessarily understanding its scientific basis. In fact, the widespread use of morphine and opium by Americans at the beginning of the 19th century had already led to an opiate addiction epidemic that affected about 1 in 200 Americans. [2]

Early American Opiate Addiction

Many of these early American victims of opiate addiction began their use under a doctor’s supervision, much like many of today’s latest surge of opiate addicts. The first big surge in opiate addiction during this period came from injured American soldiers during the Civil War who were given opiates (primarily morphine injections) while serving and who often continued their use long after the war ended to help them endure the lingering pain of injuries suffered during it. Many women, particularly wealthy women with access to a physician’s care, also became addicted to opiates as doctors prescribed them for a variety “female complaints” (in the language of the day) from menstrual cramps to morning sickness and even “diseases of a nervous character” which were thought at the time to be a uniquely female concern. This led to women comprising more than 60% of the US opium addicts in the late 1800s. [3]

Modern US Opiate Addiction Follows Historical Parallels

One can see how the current opiate addiction epidemic in the US has many parallels with early American experiences with these addictive drugs. In the present many of the US residents who have fallen prey to opiate addiction also began their use through a doctor’s prescription. Although now pills such as OxyContin or other prescription opiates are typically the first exposure to opiates by these individuals instead of the nineteenth-century doctor’s morphine syringe or opium powder, the result is often the same: a gradual descent into addiction that users then try to feed by any means necessary.


infographic using red poppy flowers showing the different potency of opiate sources

Today’s statistics on opiate addiction and overdose are especially alarming. There were more than 20,000 known opiate overdose deaths caused by prescription painkillers and more than 12,000 heroin overdose deaths in 2015. In fact, all drug overdose deaths total at least 50,000 and are the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. Unfortunately, the dissemination of these sobering facts have not subdued the opiate addiction epidemic. The wide-availability of opiates, their potent euphorigenic (creating euphoria, or a sense well-being) properties, and their ability to hijack the brain’s reward system, creating addiction, are a large part of the reason opiate addiction has become a national crisis yet again in our country’s history.

infographic using red poppy flowers showing the number of overdose deaths from opiate addiction

Opiate Dependence vs. Opiate Addiction

Opiate addiction can occur when any opiate is used in sufficient quantities for a long-enough period of time. However, there is a difference between chemical dependence and addiction. Chemical dependence can occur in the absence of addiction. When one is chemically dependent, they need the substance to prevent the onset of withdrawal. For example, a cancer patient who routinely takes opiates will suffer withdrawal if the medication is abruptly stopped, but they may not have the hallmark signs of addiction. The signs of opiate addiction listed below can help you determine if you or someone you love has fallen prey to the addictive potential of opiates and needs opiate addiction treatment.

Signs of Opiate Addiction

photo of young man holding his finger to his lips

Manipulation and secrecy

photo of money with a downward symbol on top of it

Social, occupational, legal, financial, relationship and other problems

photo of person looking very distraught holding head betweens their knees

Emotional problems related to
opiate use

photo of open bottle of prescription pain pills

Taking more of the drug than prescribed or taking it more often than needed

photo of person hiding illegal drugs in their pants pocket

Hiding drug use

When one suffers from addiction, they may or may not be chemically dependent, but they will have the symptoms listed above. Either way, when one is chemically dependent, with or without addiction, they will need to be detoxified, which is typically carried out in an inpatient or residential drug detox center.

How Opiate Addiction Takes Root

The brain naturally produces opiates as neurotransmitters, which are called endogenous opioids. These critical neurotransmitters help regulate our response to pain, hunger, emotional control, and other functions. Because endogenous opioids also regulate mood, their relationship to a sense of well-being is hijacked when one becomes addicted. External opiates replace and exceed what is naturally produced by the body. So, instead of feeling well after eating a bowl of ice cream, this effect is not only simulated when one uses, let us say heroin, for example, but it is markedly heightened. Since the brain wants to know that the body is taking care of itself, it eventually demands external opiates to “feel normal.” This is a critical component in the process whereby opiate addiction firmly takes root in an individual.

illustrated pie charts showing the longer length of opiate prescription the increased chance to become addicted

A Few Days of Use Can Lead to Addiction

A recent study highlights the potential for opiate addiction after even an extremely short prescription of opiate medication. After removing patients with cancer from their results due to their tendency to medically-require longer-term opiate usage, doctors found that even a one day supply of opiate painkiller can increase the odds that patients will become addicted and be using opiates one year later. After being given a one-day supply of opiates, 6 percent of patients were using opiates one year later. When patients were given an eight-day supply, their usage one year later spiked to 13 percent. This research shows that even a short exposure to opiates can result in patients developing an addiction that can last for years.

Common Opiates That Cause Addiction

  • Heroin
  • Fentanyl
  • Oxycontin and oxycodone
  • Dilaudid and hydromorphone
  • Vicodin and hydrocodone
  • Kadian and morphine
  • Methadone
illustrated chart showing the timeline for opiate withdrawal  with line going up then down over time

Withdrawal From Opiate Addiction

In addition to the “positive reinforcement” provided by the action of opiates on the brain’s opiate receptors, opiate addiction also has a strong “negative reinforcement” component: withdrawal. Because an abrupt cessation of opiate use will cause withdrawal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle cramping, anxiety, and agitation, among others – opiate addicts have a powerful disincentive to stop using opiates. This painful side effects of withdrawal end up convincing many individuals who decide to quit using opiates “cold turkey” without professional help to return to their use, often within days of their attempt. The lingering memory of this painful experience will then dissuade them from trying to end their addiction in the future. This is one of the reasons why it is critical for those suffering from opiate addiction to turn to professionally-trained assistance when they decide to end their opiate abuse.

All Opiates are Addictive

Since all opiates act in a similar fashion, the use of any opiate can lead to an opiate addiction. Prescription painkillers such as Oxycodone or Hydrocodone are no more unlikely to result in addiction than are “street” drugs such as heroin. In fact, many of today’s heroin addicts began their descent into addiction with a doctor-prescribed opiate before moving on to a cheaper and more readily-available one such as heroin. Whether the opiate you are using is naturally-derived, semi-synthetic, or completely synthetic – they all impact the brain’s opiate receptors in similar ways, making opiate addiction a distinct possibility.

Common Opiates by Type


icon of flower leaf representing naturally derived opiate source






icon of flower and scientific symbol representing natural and synthetic derived opiate sources









icon of scientific symbol representing synthetically derived opiate source







Opiate Addiction Treatment

Fortunately, there is effective treatment available for those who are addicted to opiates. It begins with a medically-supervised detox period, followed by intensive professional drug treatment. In addition, the person must be willing to follow a rigorous program of recovery after primary drug and alcohol treatment is completed to prevent a relapse. Sometimes this necessitates significant lifestyle changes that may be difficult to accept initially. But, these changes can prevent a relapse and potentially be life-saving.

If you or a loved one is suffering from an opiate addiction, call BWR at 800-683-4457 to get help from our experienced team of drug treatment professionals. Our operators are available 24/7 to answer your call; make it today!



Behavioral Wellness & Recovery is a Joint Commission accredited program. The Joint Commission recognizes excellence in health care organizations and programs.


Behavioral Wellness & Recovery is a Joint Commission accredited program. The Joint Commission recognizes excellence in health care organizations and programs.

Your decision to regain your life helps and heals your entire family. Do it for them. Do it for you.


1301 Wrights Lane East, Ste. 103
West Chester, PA 19380
Serving Philadelphia, PA, Lancaster, PA and Wilmington, DE