Opioids, including prescription painkillers and heroin, are best known for producing a sense of euphoria and numbness. These effects make opioid use initially seem desirable, though people who use opioids over long periods of time eventually develop a dependence on the drug. Although a large amount of research has focused on addiction and overdose related to opioid abuse, the other medical risks associated with opioid use are less well characterized. Now, emerging research demonstrates the link between opioid use and pulmonary conditions i.e. lung health.
The Opioid Drugs-Respiratory System Connection
Opioids are central nervous system depressants, meaning that they slow down nervous system activity. This results in a range of effects, including drowsiness, sedation, slowed heart rate, and slowed breathing. The slowed respiration rate is one of the most prominent symptoms of opioid use. This accounts for a large percentage of the risk of overdose deaths.
So what causes opioids to affect respiratory system functioning? The precise answers to this question are not fully understood, as researchers continue to examine the diverse effects of opioids on organs throughout the body. Once they enter the body, opioids bind to receptors found in the brain, gut, and other organs. In particular, there are many opioid receptors in the brainstem, thalamus, anterior cingulate cortex, and vagus nerves. These structures are all respiratory control centers located in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).
When the opioid molecules bind to receptors in these brain regions, they trigger a cascade of events that make the brain less sensitive to carbon dioxide. Thus, when breathing slows and less oxygen reaches the brain, the brain does not send its typical “start breathing faster” signals. This causes a spiral of events that slow breathing and may lead to brain damage.
Because of the link between opioid use and respiration, scientists predicted that chronic opioid use might influence the risk of lung conditions. Now, recent research confirms the link between opioid drugs and pulmonary health.
Increased Risk with Opioid Use and Pulmonary Conditions
Several recent research studies explored the link between long term opioid use and pulmonary conditions. For example, one study compared 1,233 children and adults with invasive pneumococcal disease (e.g., pneumonia, meningitis) with 24,399 control participants without such diseases. The researchers found that patients with pneumococcal diseases were 62% more likely to be current opioid users than those without lung diseases. Risk for pneumococcal diseases was particularly high for people taking very potent prescription painkillers or long-acting opioid formulations.
In addition to being associated with new lung infections, opioid use can actually make some chronic conditions worse. Take, for example, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is incredibly painful, causing labored breathing, fatigue, and coughing fits. Medical professionals sometimes prescribe opioid painkillers to help COPD patients manage their pain. Unfortunately, these drugs may diminish pain but cause further complications. By depressing respiratory rate even further in patients who already have a difficult time breathing, prescription opioids make it difficult for individuals to get enough oxygen to their brains. Additionally, opioid use may inflame lung tissue, creating more irritation and breathing complaints.
Taken together, these findings point to serious concern about pulmonary conditions in people taking opioids for extended periods of time. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to disentangle cause and effect. People prescribed opioids for chronic pain often have complex medical histories. These may increase their risk for certain lung diseases. Additionally, the exact mechanisms by which opioids lead to these lung diseases are unknown. More research is needed to better understand the complex links between opioid use and pulmonary health.
Seeking Treatment for Opioid Use
Research linking long-term opioid use to pulmonary conditions joins an extensive body of work outlining the negative effects of opioids on health. Opioids bind to receptors throughout the body, meaning they can affect every organ system. In addition to affecting the lungs, opioids remodel brain structure, alter cardiovascular activity, and affect gastrointestinal health.
The best way to reduce your risk of opioid-associated pulmonary conditions is to stop using the drugs. For people struggling to control their opioid use, going “cold turkey” is a challenge and may not be successful. Furthermore, people with chronic medical conditions such as COPD should not go “cold turkey” because withdrawal symptoms may be medically dangerous. A better approach is to undergo medical detoxification in a supervised environment that permits individualized treatment protocols. Medical detoxification allows you to cleanse your body of opioids while we monitor in a full service hospital setting. Thus, if you begin having difficulty with respiration, heart rate, or chronic medical conditions, a team of medical professionals is present to intervene and ensure your safety. If you are concerned about your opioid use and its effects on pulmonary health, contact the Waismann Method to learn more about medical opioid detox.
Published on Feb. 26, 2018
Reviewed by Clare Waismann, CATC, Founder of Waismann Method® Advanced Treatment for Opiate Dependence
All topics for the Opiates.com blog are selected and written based on high standards of editorial quality, including cited sources. Articles are reviewed by Clare Waismann, CATC and founder of Waismann Method®, for accuracy, credibility and relevancy to the audience. Clare Waismann is an authority and expert on opioid dependence, opioid use disorder, substance dependence, detoxification treatments, detox recovery, and other topics covered on the Opiates.com blog. Some articles are additionally reviewed by one of Waismann Method®’s specialists, depending on their field of expertise. For additional information and disclaimers regarding third-party sources and content for informational purposes only, please see our Terms of Service.