Short Term and Long Term Effects of Opioids on the Body

Legacy Healing Center Blog

Opioids are the class of drug responsible for causing approximately 130 overdose deaths each day in the United States. Its the drug that pharmaceutical companies and distributors are being charged with overprescribing and illicitly distributing. Opioids include everything from Vicodin to morphine, codeine, fentanyl, and heroin. They’re potent, addictive, and deadly, but how exactly do opioids affect the body?

Opioid abuse can cause devastating short and long term effects on the body. These health hazards not only come from taking the drug but can be a result of sharing needles and engaging in risky behaviors. These drugs can damage nearly every part of the body and some damage can be permanent.

Short Term Effects of Opioids

When opioids are taken, they work by slowing down the neurotransmitters that regulate pain signals in the brain. When this happens, a sedative-like effect occurs. Someone who has abused opioids may have slurred speech, an inability to focus, slowed reaction time, and constricted pupils. When taken in large amounts, a person can experience shallow breathing and even respiratory distress. They may go in and out of consciousness, which is commonly called “nodding out.”

Opioids can make body temperature fluctuate, making a person have cold chills alternating with hot flashes. While under the influence of opioids, mood swings may become severe. Shortly after taking opioids, the digestive system will slow down, causing many opioid users to experience constipation. Like the digestive system, the immune system slows down as well. A slowed immune system makes the body more vulnerable to infections.

If unsafe or unsterile injection techniques are used, it can result in contracting blood-borne illnesses such as HIV or hepatitis C, as well as abscesses under the skin. This can lead to further infections and issues with the immune system.

Short term effects of opioids can occur after the very first time an opioid is abused. Most long term effects, on the other hand, are a result of chronic opioid abuse.

Long Term Effects of Opioids

Although opioids are used to help with pain, chronic opioid abuse can actually make a person develop a greater sensitivity to pain in the long run. In addition, chronic abuse leads to the development of a tolerance, where a person needs increasingly larger and more potent opioids to produce the effects that they desire.

Opioids can cause lasting effects on the liver, heart, and brain. When liver damage occurs, the liver’s ability to process and cleanse the body of toxic chemicals is dramatically weakened. When injecting either pharmaceuticals or illicit opioids, the contaminants in the drugs can clog blood vessels throughout the body or lead to an infection of the hearts lining, called endocarditis. If a user injects in the same spot several times, they may experience collapsed veins.

When blood flow is restricted, as it is when abusing opioids, it can damage cognitive abilities and decision-making skills. In extreme cases, a person can develop hypoxia which is a condition that results from a prolonged lack of oxygen to the brain.

Opioid Overdose

An opioid overdose occurs when an excess of the drug is taken to the point where a person’s breathing and heartbeat slows down so much that it leads to unconsciousness. People who are more susceptible to an overdose include those who mix opioids with other drugs or alcohol, have other medical conditions, are over 65 years of age, and have experienced a prior overdose.

Signs of an opioid overdose include:

  • Clammy skin
  • Pale face
  • Limp body
  • Vomiting
  • Gurgling noises
  • Fingernails and lips appear blue
  • Person is unresponsive
  • Breathing is shallow or stopped
  • Heart rate is slow or undetectable


When an overdose occurs, oxygen is no longer being transferred from one organ to the next. Organs begin to shut down, the person can suffer from asphyxiation, and hypoxia can occur. Opioid overdose can lead to brain damage due to lack of oxygen, coma, and even death.

Opioid Treatment

Despite the effects opioids can have on the body, sobriety can help reverse and heal many of these issues. Before starting opioid detox, a medical professional will evaluate your medical history, drug use, and mental health to create an individualized treatment plan tailored to your specific needs. Opioid detox may seem scary, but detox medications like Suboxone and Methadone can make the process virtually painless and easy.

It is important to recognize that detox alone will not ensure sobriety and will not make you immune to the effects of opioids on the body. In fact, many overdoses occur after a person has accumulated some clean time because their tolerance isn’t as high as it was before. Instead, it is important to complete opioid rehab in order to prepare you with the tools needed to maintain your sobriety.

During treatment, you will discuss your addiction with others and learn about the underlying factors that are the root of opioid addiction. You will learn healthy coping mechanisms as well as the value of community in recovery. If you are suffering from opioid addiction and are ready to take the first steps to recovery, give our addiction specialists at Legacy Healing Center a call today.



Medline Plus Opioid Overdose

Very Well Mind How Opiates Impact the Brain and Body

CDC Understanding the Epidemic