Opioid Use Disorder

(OUD; Opioid Abuse; Opioid Addiction; Opioid Dependence)


Opioid use disorder (OUD) is when a person keeps using opioids despite the cognitive, behavioral, and physical problems they cause.

Opioids are a class of drugs made from opium. Ones like oxycodone are legal when prescribed by a doctor. Others like heroin are illegal. They are often mixed with other substances, snorted, or used for the wrong reasons, such as to get high or to fall asleep.


The cause is not known. Things like genetics, the environment, and peer pressure may play a role.

How it Affects the Brain

Opioids help release chemicals in the brain that cause joy. Over time, you need more drugs to cause the same release. This leads to misuse.

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Risk Factors

Things that may raise the risk are:


OUD can lead to:

  • Being unable to stop or limit use
  • Craving the opioid
  • Making a habit of using the opioid even though it causes problems
  • Moving from one doctor to another to get more
  • Rapid increase in the amount of opioids needed
  • Use that gets in the way of doing normal things
  • Using a lot of effort to get more of the opioid

With regular use, the body begins to need the drug to get through the day. A person may get sick when they stop or take less of the opioid. It may result in nausea, vomiting, shaking, and sweating. This can make it harder to stop using.


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. You will also be asked about your use of opioids. A physical exam will be done. This is often enough to make the diagnosis.

Blood, urine, saliva, sweat, and hair may also be tested to look for signs of opioid use.


The first step is to stop using opioids. This is also known as detox. The second step is to change behaviors to stop from using the drug again.

It can take some time to recover. Treatment may be given in a rehabilitation program. Many people may need to be treated several times. It may include 1 or more of the following:


Medicines may be given to ease withdrawal symptoms and lower the risk of using again. Common ones are:

  • Buprenorphine
  • Buprenorphine/Naloxone—a combined drug
  • Methadone
  • Naltrexone


Therapy can help a person learn about the issues and lifestyle choices that lead to opioid use. This can help a person learn coping and problem-solving skills. A person can also learn how to replace opioid-use behaviors with healthier choices. Therapy sessions may be 1-on-1 or with a person's family.

Support Groups

Narcotics Anonymous is a 12-step program. It helps to support people who are recovering from OUD.


The best way to prevent OUD is not to use opioids.


Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians

National Institute on Drug Abuse


Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health


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Last reviewed March 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Adrian Preda, MD