Those who become tolerant to opioids can end up experiencing many problematic side effects. While tolerance itself naturally occurs during chronic opioid use, it can lead to problems like abuse, addiction, overdose, and dependence.
If you’re experiencing opioid tolerance, call 800-821-3880 now to speak with an addiction specialist.
What is Opioid Tolerance?
Tolerance, as defined by the NIDA, “occurs when the person no longer responds to the drug in the way that person initially responded.” People who become tolerant to opioids should be concerned about their intake of the drugs and watch themselves so that they do not abuse the drugs because of this.
Tolerance can occur after someone takes prescription opioids for a while, usually more than a few months. But tolerance will also occur in those who abuse prescription and illegal street drugs. “Regular use of heroin changes the functioning of the brain,” according to the NIDA, one of the results of which is tolerance. Dependence often occurs in conjunction with tolerance, but they are not the same.
- Dependence– When a person feels like he or she needs the drug and withdrawal symptoms occur when the drug is not taken.
- Tolerance– When a person who has been using a drug finds that higher and higher doses are needed in order to achieve the same or original effect.
Who Experiences Opioid Tolerance?
Anyone who takes opioids for a long amount of time will experience opioid tolerance. It does not necessarily mean that the person is abusing the drug, although it could lead to abuse if he or she is not careful. Those who do abuse opioids will also experience tolerance, and some will chase that original high the entire time they use opioids recreationally.
The NLM states that “the time it takes to become physically dependent varies with each individual.” This is also true for tolerance. Some factors will skew the general time it takes though, such as:
- The amount of the drug the person is taking every day
- Whether or not the person is abusing the drug
- If the person has already built up a tolerance to another type of drug or opioid drug
It is not uncommon, though, for any person who takes opioids for a long period of time to become tolerant to their effects.
Is Opioid Tolerance Dangerous?
In and of itself, not really. But opioid tolerance can become dangerous if a person begins to abuse the drug. The NIDA states, “When tolerance occurs, it can be difficult for a physician to evaluate whether a patient is developing a drug problem, or has a real medical need for higher doses to control their symptoms.” This is why opioid tolerance can become dangerous.
Opioid tolerance can lead to a host of other problems and consequences if you are not careful and you do not consult your doctor. Those who become tolerant to opioid drugs may eventually experience:
Someone taking opioids for pain may begin to take extras because the original dosage does not curb the pain any longer. If you do this without your doctor’s approval, you are abusing opioids.
People often become addicted as a consequence of opioid tolerance. If they start abusing these drugs, they will have to take more and more every time to feel the effects. This will often lead to the individual being unable to stop taking opioids, even if he or she knows that they are doing more harm than good.
Though tolerance and dependence can often occur simultaneously, a person who depends on opioids cannot feel normal without taking them. Physical withdrawal symptoms usually occur, and the person’s tolerance will drop severely after detoxing from the drug.
Overdose is a common consequence of tolerance. Many people who become tolerant to the effects of heroin or prescription opioids do not realize that they are taking too much of the drug. They will sometimes take so much that it harms them and causes respiratory depression, coma, and death.
It is important to note that the highest number of deaths due to opioid overdose are those which occur after detox treatment. As stated by the NLM, “because withdrawal reduces your tolerance to the drug, those who have just gone through withdrawal can overdose on a much smaller dose than they used to take.” Because of this high possibility for overdose, it is always important to know your tolerance for opioids and the effect it can have on you.
How Is Opioid Tolerance Treated?
There isn’t a specific treatment for just tolerance to opioids; most of the time, a person will become dependent as he or she becomes tolerant to the drugs. Then, the best treatment is to slowly taper off the use of the drug or have the person put on another type of opioid. This usually takes care of the tolerance too, as not taking in more of the drug for a while will cause the tolerance to ebb. For those who are addicted, detox is only the first part of the process and opioid addiction treatment must follow.
Sometimes, those who become tolerant to opioids but who still need to take them regularly can switch to a different type of medication that is prescribed to those who already have a high tolerance for these drugs. This does not cure opioid tolerance, but it can help with some of the issues involved when a person still needs to take opioids for pain. Some of these medications are:
- The highest concentration morphine oral solution (NLM)
As opioid tolerance can lead to many dangerous outcomes, the NIDA states, “physicians need to be vigilant and attentive to their patients’ symptoms and level of functioning to treat them appropriately” (NIDA 3). If you feel that you are building up a tolerance to the opioid medication that you are taking, discuss your issues with your doctor as soon as possible, as this can help to prevent some of the other issues that may follow opioid tolerance. Make sure never to stray from the prescribed dosage, even if you feel that you may need more, and look for the signs of abuse and addiction in yourself to catch them before it’s too late.