How to tell if a loved one is abusing opioids

Signs of opioid abuse may be hard to see clearly, especially in someone you love.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

How to tell if a loved one is abusing opioids

Is someone you love abusing opioid medications? It may not be easy to tell, especially in the early stages of addiction. Perhaps you've noticed changes in your loved one's moods or behavior that don't add up. Or maybe your intuition is telling you there's a problem. Even if you can't put your finger on anything specific, it's worth taking stock of your concerns. If your instincts are right, speaking up could save the life of someone dear to you.

Ask yourself some questions about your loved one's personal risk of addiction and the changes you may have noticed. If your answers point toward a possible addiction, reach out to your loved one's doctor. He or she is a critical partner if you determine it's time to take action.

What are the chances my loved one could be addicted?

People who take potentially addictive drugs as prescribed rarely abuse them or become addicted. But taking them not as prescribed or for an extended period of time increases the risk of misuse and addiction. Studies suggest that up to one-third of people who take opioids for chronic pain misuse them, and more than 10 percent become addicted over time.

Your loved one is also at increased risk of addiction if he or she obtains opioids without a prescription. And using opioids illegally increases the risk of drug-related death. Drugs that pass hands illegally, such as fentanyl (Actiq, Duragesic, Fentora), may be laced with life-threatening contaminants or much more powerful opioids. And people who use opioids illegally often turn to heroin, a cheap replacement with similar effects.

Some factors increase a person's risk of opioid addiction even before they start taking these drugs — legally or otherwise. Your loved one is at increased risk of opioid addiction if he or she:

  • Is a younger age, specifically the teens or early 20s
  • Is living in stressful circumstances, including being unemployed or living below the poverty line
  • Has a personal or family history of substance abuse
  • Has a history of problems with work, family and friends
  • Has had legal problems in the past, including DUIs
  • Is in regular contact with high-risk people or high-risk environments where there's drug use
  • Has struggled with severe depression or anxiety
  • Tends to engage in risk-taking or thrill-seeking behavior
  • Uses tobacco heavily

A number of additional factors — genetic, psychological and environmental — play a role in addiction, which can happen quickly or after many years of opioid use. Anyone who takes opioids is at risk of becoming addicted, regardless of age, social status or ethnic background.

Feb. 14, 2018 See more In-depth