Painkiller Use Tied to Increased Risk for Serious Infections

Prescription opioids are used by more than one-third of the U.S. population for treating severe and chronic pain. Common side effects of opioids include tolerance, dependence, and increased sensitivity to pain, but new evidence is showing that opioids also increase the risk for life-threatening infections such as pneumonia and meningitis.

How Does Painkiller Use Cause Infections?

painkiller use

Opioids relieve pain by binding to receptors in the brain and body that slow down breathing and reduce the sensation of pain while also helping you feel relaxed, content, and euphoric. But at the same time, opioids suppress the immune system to make users more susceptible to illness and disease. This is why opioids are generally only intended for short-term use, since long-term opioid use can lead to weakened immunity and other health problems.

In the latest study published in Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers at Vanderbilt University analyzed the Tennessee Medicaid database and Active Bacterial Core surveillance data to determine which infections opioid users are more likely to contract. In a group of 1,233 patients with invasive pneumococcal disease or IPD, it was found that more than 25% were using opioids, compared to only 14% of the control group who did not have IPD. IPD is a bacterial infection caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria that can eventually lead to more serious conditions including meningitis, invasive pneumonia, and bacteremia.

Lead study author Andrew Wiese, PhD, MPH says the main purpose of the study was to gain a better understanding of the side effects of opioid use. Given how opioids are now in the spotlight due to the nationwide epidemic, these findings could steer doctors toward using safer, less risky pain treatments.

Adverse Opioid Side Effects to Be Aware Of

Even when used as directed, prescription opioids can produce a long list of adverse side effects. For instance, using opioids long-term can increase your sensitivity to pain, even if you’re using the medication to relieve chronic pain in the first place.

Common side effects of painkillers:

  • Increased sensitivity to pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dry mouth
  • Itching
  • Sweating
  • Constipation
  • Sedation
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Decreased testosterone levels
  • Depression
  • Tolerance
  • Physical dependence
  • Addiction

Drugs like opioids that weaken the immune system can make it more difficult for the body to detect and destroy harmful cells and bacteria that cause infection and disease. Doctors not involved in the Vanderbilt study say that opioid users who inject painkillers and use them intravenously may face an even higher risk for deadly infections due to the spreading of bacteria from needle sharing and needle reuse.

Becoming tolerant to opioids also increases the risk for physical dependence and psychological addiction — both of which can lead to an overdose. Opioid overdoses killed more than 53,000 Americans in 2016. But those who stop using opioids can greatly lower their risk for any adverse side effects, including dependence and addiction.

How to Safely Get Through Opioid Withdrawal

Opioid painkillers change your brain function in ways that make it highly difficult to quit using these drugs without professional help. Opioid withdrawal symptoms are often painful and uncomfortable, and may include bone pain, insomnia, and vomiting, among others. People who try to stop using painkillers on their own usually relapse to escape these symptoms, and end up facing a higher risk for an overdose.

One of the safest ways to get through opioid withdrawal is to go through an opioid detox at a drug detox center. An opioid detox allows you to withdraw from opioids gradually, safely, and comfortably using medications like methadone and buprenorphine that completely relieve withdrawal symptoms.

If you need help overcoming opioid dependence, look for drug detox centers that offer a medical detox or medication-assisted treatment. Both detox treatments involve the use of medications that can enhance your recovery and help you achieve sobriety with fewer complications.

Call our 24/7 confidential helpline at 866-351-3840(Who Answers?) to speak to an addiction counselor about your treatment options, or use our detox center directory to find the nearest treatment center. Our goal is to help you find the best opioid treatments so you or your loved one can become healthier, happier, and addiction-free.

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