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Opioids are drugs derived from poppy seeds and are commonly used to relieve pain. They include oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, morphine, and heroin, and can be taken intravenously, orally, via a patch or suppository. Opioid dependence and addiction is a major health issue worldwide.


Opioid overdose


One of the reasons why opioid use disorder is such a public health emergency is due to the risks of opioid overdose, which may be fatal if untreated in time. A drug overdose occurs when drugs are taken in excessive amounts. Some of the most common signs of an opioid overdose includes pinpoint pupils, slow breathing, and unconsciousness.


An opioid overdose can be easily reversed via the antidote called naloxone. However, due to stigma associated with illicit substance use including opioids, most opioids are taken often without medical supervision. Risk factors for an opioid overdose include the following:


  • An opioid use disorder (OUD)

  • Using prescription opioids without medical advice or supervision

  • Opioids taken in combination with a sedative, such as benzodiazepine or alcohol

  • Opioids in the form of injections


Other health complications associated with drug use


There are also other health complications associated with drug use, particularly injected drugs. These people are more prone to blood-borne infections such as HIV and hepatitis C, and skin infections. Bacteria may also be transmitted from the injection site to the heart, which may lead to a condition called endocarditis. Left untreated, heart complications may arise which may result in death. Deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a condition where a blood clot forms in a deep vein, may occur, causing swollen and painful legs in the long run. Untreated DVT may lead to a condition called pulmonary embolism, where the clot is launched in the vessels of the lungs, resulting in breathing difficulties and life-threatening complications.


Opioid use among youth


A significant proportion of drug users are aged between 15 to 24. Studies have shown that most of these users started out by obtaining opioids, such as prescription opioids, from friends and family. OUDs amongst adolescents are also associated with other mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, behavioural problems, and other forms of substance abuse. Therefore, greater awareness is needed to improve existing strategies on prevention and treatment of OUD amongst youth.


Prevention strategies


Much of the responsibility lies with the government to improve on existing guidelines and policies as well as healthcare providers to identify patients with opioid dependence or addiction and ensure that patience are educated on risks and benefits of all medicines, particularly prescription opioids.


On an individual level, you can also play a part in preventing an OUD. If you are using opioids, and you find yourself relying more and more on opioids particularly to the point that it is affecting your daily life, you should consult a doctor on how to manage your condition. If you suspect your friend or family has OUD, you should encourage him/her/them to seek help. Signs of an opioid addiction include:


  • Drowsiness or lack of energy

  • Weight loss

  • Loss of concentration

  • Loss of interest in usual hobbies or daily activities

  • Isolation from friends and families

  • Sudden financial problems

  • Mood changes

  • Constipation

  • Injection marks


Signs of opioid withdrawal include:


  • Nausea, vomiting

  • Sweating

  • Uncontrollable shaking

  • Irritability or anxiety

  • Diarrhoea


Treatment options


Treatment options include medications, behavioural management, and social support. Medications such as naltrexone, buprenorphine, and methadone, are highly effective in reducing dependence and preventing relapse. In combination with behavioural therapy, many people can go on to be drug-free for the rest of their lives. If you need help, do consult an addiction doctor on the best treatment options for you.

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