The Half-Life and Long Term Realities of Opioids

Published On: July 2, 2021|Categories: Addiction|
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Opioids are pain-killing drugs that, when ingested, attach to the opioid receptors in the brain to decrease the pain felt in the body; the binding action additionally causes the receptors to release dopamine that triggers a feeling of pleasure. This boosted sense of euphoria and minimization of pain is the leading reason behind the highly addictive nature of opioids.  

Opioids span a wide range of drugs, from illegal ones (heroin), to others legally prescribed as pain medication (oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, etc). When they are taken as a prescribed pain medication, they can effectively treat pain in the body like that experienced after surgery. But they have an equally high risk of abuse, driving a person to take higher amounts of opioids as time goes on.  

How long do opioids stay in the system?

As with any substance, opioids have both short-term and long-term effects on the body and brain. Additionally, they don’t remain in the body’s system for long periods of time. Opioids typically have a brief half-life, meaning they begin acting on the body quickly after use and are flushed out of the system soon after. However, the presence of some opioids can still be detected in the hair of the individual for up to 90 days. 

  • Morphine – Morphine, if injected, begins to work in as little as five minutes, but takes up to an hour to begin working if taken in pill form. The effects will begin to wear off after 4-6 hours, but they will remain in the system for longer. Morphine can be detectable in the blood for 12 hours after the last dose, in the urine for three days and in saliva for four days. 
  • Heroin – Heroin goes into effect almost immediately and is flushed from the body within thirty minutes of use. For this reason, it’s only detectable in the blood for five hours and saliva for six. However, it can be detected in urine for up to seven days. 
  • Codeine – Codeine also has a short lifespan. Its effects can be felt about 30 minutes after being taken and are flushed from the body mere hours later. It remains in the blood for 24 hours, saliva for 24-48 and urine for up to four days. 
  • Oxycodone – The effects of oxycodone can be felt for about three to five hours. It takes longer for this drug to be flushed from the system and can be identified in saliva for up to two days and in urine for up to four days. 
  • Fentanyl – Fentanyl begins working on the body almost immediately after use and can be felt for up to seven hours. It remains in the blood for up to 12 hours, in urine for up to 24 hours and in saliva for up to four days. 

Of course, certain factors may or may not extend the life of certain of these drugs in the system. Additional factors for how a drug operates and impacts the body include: 

  • The individual’s weight, age and gender
  • How long the individual has been using the drug
  • The amount and frequency of dosage
  • The type of drug and how it was taken (injected, snorted, smoked)
  • Pre-existing mental condition or health problem 
  • Whether it was taken in conjunction with other drugs and/or alcohol
  • The level of hydration in the body 

Long-term effects of opioids on the body

Opioids are no doubt effective for treating pain in the body. This is why they’re prescribed to individuals who suffer from chronic pain or are recovering from an injury or surgery. Unfortunately, if not properly treated opioids can lead to severe addiction because of the way the body builds up a tolerance to them.

As an individual becomes more and more dependent on the opioid, regardless of which it is, it can lead to drug dependence, that is, the alteration to the way the brain works while the drug is present. The brain literally adjusts the way it functions so that when the opioids are not present, the brain fails to operate in a healthy way and will have difficulty finding pleasure in means other than the drug. 

Additionally, drugs prey on the part of the brain responsible for healthy decision-making and self-control. This means an individual can quickly become addicted to a substance not because they actively choose to become addicted, but because – 1) their body ceases to function properly without the presence of the drug (as seen in unpleasant and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms) and 2) the drug negatively impacts their ability to make decisions and control their impulses. 

The aftermath of opioids is longer than you think

The half-life, or short-term effects, of opioids, might make it tempting to think that “that’s it.” That they’re in the system for a couple of hours or days at the most, and then it’s end-of-story. Unfortunately, the longer the period of time during which an individual takes drugs, the higher the risk for abuse and subsequent addiction. So even though the substance itself is flushed from the system, the lasting effects on the brain or the cravings for another dose can still be present. 

For this reason, it’s important to be in close communication with your doctor if you’re prescribed opioid pain medication. If you begin to notice a problem or simply don’t want to run the risks, speak with your doctor about other options for you. And, as always, you can confidentially reach out to Pyramid Healthcare for additional help or counseling in regards to opioid drugs and pain medications at 301-997-1300.

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