Opioid medications treat pain associated with surgery, cancer, chronic illness, and traumatic injury. The short-term effects of taking opioids are well-studied, but the long-term effects are less clear.

Some experts may consider a person to have taken opioids long-term after a period of a few weeks to 3 months or longer.

This article explores the long-term effects of taking opioids and the overall risks of opioids in general.

A brain with wires -2.Share on Pinterest
Jonathan Kitchen/Getty Images

Opioids work by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and other organs, blocking pain messages the body sends.

These receptors also receive signals for pleasure and trigger large releases of dopamine. This makes a person feel happy and can strongly reinforce the desire to take opioids, leading to a risk of dependence and addiction.

Taking opioids long-term may result in certain medical conditions such as:

Other long-term effects of opioids include:

Learn more about opioids.

What are opioids for?

Opioids, also known as narcotics, are medications healthcare professionals prescribe to treat persistent or severe pain.

In the event of an opioid overdose, it is crucial to seek emergency medical attention immediately to prevent irreversible injury and sudden death.

Naloxone, available under the brand name Narcan, is a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose by binding to opioid receptors in the brain and blocking the effects of opioids on the body. It works quickly and, if given early enough, can restore standard breathing and prevent sudden death.

Naloxone is an injection or a nasal spray available in some places without a prescription. It is not a substitute for medical attention but is safe to give while waiting for emergency medical professionals to arrive. First responders may administer additional doses.

Learn more about the signs of an overdose.

Long-term opioid effects may differ from short-term effects.

Common short-term effects of taking opioids include:

  • drowsiness
  • euphoria
  • nausea or vomiting
  • constipation
  • slowed breathing
  • an altered mental status or periods of confusion
  • addiction or overdose

The Drug Enforcement Agency uses a classification system for controlled or scheduled substances ranging from I–V (1–5).

The lower the number, the more dangerous and addictive the substance can be in the event of misuse. Schedule I substances have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for misuse. Heroin is an illegal opioid.

Many opioids are Schedule II. Prescription opioid misuse is a risk factor for substance use disorder.

There are many types of prescribed opioids known by several names, which include:

Learn more about substance use disorder.

Since opioids bind to receptors that signal pleasure as well as pain, taking them can lead a person to want to take them repeatedly.

Opioid use disorder, formerly known as opioid addiction, involves persistently taking opioids despite experiencing harmful consequences. This involves being physically dependent on opioids.

All of the long-term risks linked with prescription opioids apply in the case of dependency. Sometimes, additional risks arise depending on the route through which a person takes them.

For example, if a person snorts opioids, tissue erosion inside the nose can occur over time. This can result in issues such as:

With injections, the individual is at risk of bloodborne infections and other injection-related risks such as:

Opioid use disorder affects over 16 million people worldwide, and experts attribute 120,000 deaths to opioids every year globally.

Help is available

Seeking help for addiction may feel daunting or even scary, but several organizations can provide support.

If you believe that you or someone close to you is showing signs of addiction, you can contact the following organizations for immediate help and advice:

Was this helpful?

There is no formal definition of what it means to take opioids in the long term, and each person may respond differently to opioid medications. Because of this, it is challenging to connect taking opioids for an extended period to health outcomes.

However, taking opioids over a long period may result in certain medical conditions, such as adrenal insufficiency or respiratory depression. It also carries a high risk of dependence and addiction.