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Learning About Opioid Use Disorder

What is opioid use disorder?

Opioids are strong pain medicines. Examples include hydromorphone, oxycodone, fentanyl, and morphine. Heroin is an example of an illegal opioid. Opioid use disorder is using these drugs in a way that keeps you from living the life you want. Your use is out of control, and it harms you and your relationships.

Even if you don't see bad effects in your life, it can be dangerous to use opioids in a way that your doctor didn't prescribe.

Taking too much of an opioid can cause:

  • Trouble breathing.
  • Low blood pressure.
  • A low heart rate.
  • A coma.
  • Death.

Some people develop problems with opioids after they get a prescription from a doctor. Others buy these drugs illegally.

Many people with this disorder, and sometimes their families, feel embarrassed or ashamed. Don't let these feelings stand in the way of getting treatment. Remember that the disorder can happen to anyone who uses opioids, no matter what the reason.

What are the symptoms?

You may have opioid use disorder if two or more of the following are true:

  • You use larger amounts of the drug than you ever meant to. Or you've been using it for a longer period of time than you ever meant to.
  • You can't cut down or control your use. Or you constantly wish you could cut down.
  • You spend a lot of time getting or using the drug, or recovering from the effects.
  • You have strong cravings for the drug.
  • You can no longer do your main jobs at work, at school, or at home.
  • You keep using even though your drug use hurts your relationships.
  • You have stopped doing important activities because of your drug use.
  • You use drugs in situations where doing so is dangerous.
  • You keep using the drug even though you know it is causing health problems.
  • You need more and more of the drug to get the same effect, or you get less effect from the same amount over time. This is called tolerance.
  • You can't stop using the drug without having uncomfortable symptoms. This is called withdrawal.

How is opioid use disorder treated?

Treatment usually includes medicines, group therapy, one or more types of counselling, and drug education.

Sometimes medicines are used to help you quit. They may help to control cravings, ease withdrawal symptoms, and prevent relapse. This treatment is called medication-assisted treatment, or MAT. During MAT, you take a substitute drug (usually methadone or buprenorphine) in place of the opioid you were using. Most people take the medicine for months or years as a part of the treatment, along with therapy or counselling.

Treatment focuses on more than drugs. It helps you cope with the anger, frustration, sadness, and disappointment that often happen when a person tries to stop using drugs.

Treatment also looks at other parts of your life. For example, how are your relationships with friends and family? What's going on at school and work? Do you have health problems? What is your living situation? Treatment helps you find and manage problems. It helps you take control of your life so you don't have to depend on drugs.

A drug problem affects your whole family. Family counselling often is part of treatment.

Urgent treatment for an overdose

Naloxone is a medicine that reverses the effects of an overdose. If you take it or someone gives it to you soon enough after an overdose, it can save your life. Naloxone comes in a take-home naloxone kit you can carry with you. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about having a take-home naloxone kit on hand. You can get naloxone without a prescription at most drugstores or through a community Take Home Naloxone program.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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