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Long-Term Effects of Opiate Use

author image Dr. Susan Jewell
Health expert and network TV/radio/Internet host, Dr. Susan Jewell has appeared on CBS, Fox News, ABC and NBC. She is a health blogger and producer, and currently produces several webisode/TV series on "how-tos on health and living green." Dr. Jewell trained in clinical research medicine in cancer and AIDS/HIV at NIH and UCLA.
Long-Term Effects of Opiate Use
Prescription pain killers on a table. Photo Credit: Roel Smart/iStock/Getty Images

Opiates are a class of drugs that reduce pain and increase feelings of euphoria and relaxation. Long-term use of drugs in this class of medications can result in increase tolerance, physical dependence and addiction. Some individuals taking opiates as prescribed by a physician may not experience adverse effects. Their bodies adjust to the dose prescribed by the doctor and they can function normally in everyday activities. Because their bodies have adjusted to having the opiates present all the time, these patients will still experience some withdrawal when the medication is stopped.

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Increased Tolerance

Opiate tolerance develops when a person’s body adjusts to having the drug or substance in the system over a period of time. Tolerance develops at different rates in different people and in reaction to different substances. Tolerance is a sign that the dosing (or usage) may be too much and the individual is progressing to the next stage called dependence. Patients who are long-term users of opiates will have an increased risk of developing tolerance to the opiate medications.

Physical Dependence

Physical dependence is the phenomenon whereby the body adjusts to having the opiate drug in the system. Any reduction in the levels of the opiate drug forces the body to re-adjust. This is what we refer to as withdrawal phase. When the stopping of a substance causes the body to “rebound” and results in symptoms of withdrawal, we say that the individual has developed physical dependence. Dependency is a predictable behavior and is controllable by professional counseling and treatment therapies.


One of the common long-term side effects of chronic use of opiates is developing an addiction to the drug. Opiate addiction is an uncontrollable situation that affects the individual in a biochemical, physical and psychological way. Addiction is a complex phenomenon characterized by substance abuse, relapse and eventually death. The management of opiate addiction is monitored and supervised under a professional health care provider, medical doctor, and a supportive team of counselors and behavioral therapists. Individuals addicted to opiate drugs are typically placed on a 12-step detoxification treatment program.

Physical Signs and Symptoms

Long-term effects can manifest in physical signs and symptoms in chronic abusers or user of opiates. Some common signs are needle tracks and collapsed veins. Frequent infections, acne, and other skin problems can develop due to poor hygiene care and poor health. Other medical complications, such as heart and valve infections and liver problems, can develop over time because long-term use of opiates will weaken the immune system in the body. Opiates can cause respiratory depression and increase the risks of getting pulmonary and respiratory problems such as pneumonia and bronchitis.

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