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Opium Abuse, Addiction, And Treatment Options

Jennifer Cousineau MSCP, LPCI, NCC

Medically reviewed by

Jennifer Cousineau, MSCP, LPCI, NCC

April 1, 2019

Opium is a highly addictive substance from an opium poppy. Opioid painkillers are either modeled after or directly created from opium.

What Is Opium?

Opium comes from the opium poppy, or breadseed poppy. This specific poppy, also called papaver somniferum, creates both poppyseeds and opium. The thick white liquid (or juice) from the poppy is bitter and tastes terrible. It also contains morphine alkalines, which can be manipulated and processed to create many different substances, both legal and illegal.

Opium has been found dating back to 5000 BCE, and it is believed that it was used for its mind-altering and pain relieving abilities for nearly as long. Opium was also used in rituals and surgeries, and remained one of the strongest forms of pain relief for centuries.

Medical texts throughout history indicated opium as a treatment for a number of ailments, including migraines, sciatica, cholera, dysentery, bronchitis, tuberculosis, rheumatism and insomnia. It also was used to treat melancholy and recommended for daily use by otherwise healthy people.

However, opium is extremely addictive, and documentation of opium addiction and dangers of withdrawal date back hundreds of years. The withdrawal symptoms reported were painful and in some cases unbearable, meanwhile people continued to abuse the plant.

Opium is similar to other opioids in addictive nature and euphoric properties. Anyone who uses opium is at high risk for addiction and it can lead to use of other opioids, including heroin.

How Is Opium Used (Abused)?

Once opium is taken from the opium poppy, it is dried and it creates a reddish-brown tar-like substance. Opium has a strong, potpourri like scent in this form, and is tacky to the touch. Dried opium can be abused in a variety of ways, however it is commonly smoked, as that creates the most intense effects of the drug.

Opium is available as a powder, liquid, or solid. It can be put in a pill form, injected, or smoked. Sometimes it is mixed with marijuana and called Buddha. Other common street names for opium include aunti, chinese molasses, ope, chandoo, yang, or gondola.

If opium is processed, it can be turned into heroin, morphine, and a number of other opioids. Opium abuse and methods used differ across the world, but it is used and abused worldwide.

Opium Abuse And Effects

Smoking opium results in a rush of intense euphoria, followed by overall relaxation that can last up to twelve hours. Additionally, any pain the person is experiencing disappears, both physical and mental.

These numbing and relaxing effects of opium are key factors in why people continue to abuse opium, knowing the risk factors associated with the drug. Opium has the same effects and risk factors as other opioids, it is in no way safer than morphine or fentanyl. It can be potentially more dangerous, as there is no way of knowing how much a person is ingesting.

Other effects of opium abuse include:

  • excessive drowsiness
  • decrease blood pressure and heart rate
  • dry mouth
  • slowed breathing
  • impaired motor function
  • increased risk taking
  • cognitive impairments

Simply because opium comes directly from a plant does not mean it is in any way safer than other drugs. Opium is addictive, as addictive as heroin and other opioids.

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Long-term opium use has significant effects on both the mental and physical health of the person using opium, such as:

  • drying of mucous membranes (nasal passages, mouth, bowels)
  • decrease sex drive
  • reproductive problems
  • damage to organ systems
  • infections due to injecting
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • in some cases, psychosis has been reported

Opium Dependence And Addiction

Opium attaches to opioid receptors in the brain, in the same way as other opioids, like hydrocodone and morphine. This attachment causes the brain to be flooded with dopamine. Dopamine is often referred to as the “feel good” neurotransmitter, but dopamine has a lot of other jobs as well.

Dopamine is involved in learning, memory, sleep, and regulating emotions. When normal brain function is disrupted and dopamine levels skyrocket, the brain stops making adequate levels of dopamine on its own. When opium leaves the body, the brain does not immediately return to making dopamine. Low levels of dopamine can result in anxiety, tremors, memory problems, depression, sleep issues, and problems concentrating.

When the body is not able to function properly (ie. making enough dopamine) without opium, the person has developed opium dependence. Dependence can easily lead to addiction.

Addiction is a disease that affects brain chemistry and results in several notable behavioral changes. A person with opium addiction may have several of the following behaviors:

  • emerging withdrawal symptoms without opium
  • intense cravings for opium
  • significant amounts of time or money being spent on finding and using opium
  • stealing from others to obtain opium
  • unable to stop or slow opium intake
  • replacing opium with other opioids when unable to find opium
  • avoiding situations or people where opium use isn’t acceptable
  • using opium in dangerous situations
  • opium use causing significant issues in health or responsibilities
  • continuing to use opium in light of negative effects

A person addicted to opium is at high risk for an overdose, and will also experience uncomfortable, and often painful, withdrawal symptoms if they attempt to stop using opium.

Opium Overdose

When a person ingests too much opium, they will experience symptoms of an overdose. It is important to seek emergency medical services, as many ambulances are equipped with naloxone (Narcan), which can reverse the effects of opioids, like opium.

Symptoms of an opium overdose include:

  • unable to stay awake
  • respiratory depression
  • bluish skin
  • loss of motor function
  • seizures
  • coma
  • death

Taking other drugs when abusing opium can increase the likelihood of overdose, intensify the effects of opium, and cause extreme unpredictability of the drugs overall.

Opium Withdrawal

There are mixed reports regarding the intensity of opium withdrawal. Some claim opium withdrawal are similar to that of other opioids, while others state that opium withdrawal symptoms are not as ‘intense’ as other opioids, like morphine or heroin.

Either way, opium withdrawal symptoms are uncomfortable, painful, and some people report that they are unbearable. These withdrawal symptoms usually occur about twelve hours after the last use of opium:

  • sweating
  • diarrhea
  • watering eyes
  • runny nose
  • agitation
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • goosebumps
  • insomnia
  • twitching
  • fever
  • nausea

These symptoms begin to lose intensity after two to three days, although sometimes they can continue for about a week. While opioid withdrawal symptoms are usually not fatal, many report that they are unbearable, and avoiding symptoms of withdrawal is often the reason opioid users relapse or are unable to stop in the first place.

Opium Addiction Treatment

Treatment for an opium addiction should begin with a medically supervised detoxification program. This will allow medical professionals to assess the person throughout the withdrawal phase. Medications can be used to ease the discomfort associated with withdrawal, and during this time, assessments can be made to determine the next phase of treatment.

After detox, individuals who struggle with opioid addiction are encouraged to attend a substance abuse program to help them understand how or why they abused opium, and what exacerbated the addiction. Currently, substance abuse facilities that offer opioid treatment programs require certification and have to follow regulations.

Opioid treatment programs that follow regulations include options for medically supervised detoxification, substance abuse treatment, counseling, vocational and educational services, medical treatment options, and thorough aftercare planning. We can help you find a substance abuse facility that can treat opium addiction for you or your loved one, contact us today.

Medline Plus - Opioid Abuse And Addiction Treatment

World Health Organization - Opium Abuse and Its Management: Global Scenario

National Library of Medicine - Opiate and opioid withdrawal

Economic Botany - Archaeological Evidence for the Tradition of Psychoactive Plant Use in the Old World

Medical Anthropology Quarterly - Chasing the Dragon: The Cultural Metamorphosis of Opium in the United States

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