The Risks of Smoking Opioids

Opioids include a large class of substances, all of which activate opioid receptors in the brain. The fact that our brains house a special receptor for these drugs has a lot to do with why opioids are so addictive. When you speed up the effects of opioids on the brain, these drugs can cause even more damage. Herein lies the risks of smoking opioids.

The Opioid Abuse Cycle

Heroin, fentanyl, Demerol, and codeine are just a few drugs that belong to the opioid drug class. Whether they’re prescribed by a doctor or purchased from a dealer, all opioids target the same chemical processes in the brain. Normally, opioid-related activities in the brain stem from natural, internal processes; however, the brain can’t tell the difference between a natural stimulus and an external stimulus, such as smoking opioids.

Opioids reach the brain via the bloodstream, where they trigger the biochemical processes that produce feelings of pleasure, particularly those related to basic life functions, such as food and sex. The brain will naturally seek out any stimulus that supports these basic life functions, including the pleasure response brought on by opioids. These conditions set the stage for the opioid abuse cycle to take root.

What’s Different With Smoking Opioids?

Prescription opioids typically come in pill form while heroin comes in powder form. Smoking, snorting, and injecting are all possible routes of administration. The route used determines how quickly you’ll feel the effects of the drug.

Injecting produces the quickest results. Compared to snorting, smoking delivers a faster effect, which makes smoking the second most dangerous way to abuse opioids. Opioid risks increase substantially with faster routes of delivery. This means all of the dangers associated with opioid abuse are compounded when you smoke opioids.

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Risks of Smoking Opioids

Higher Potency levels

Prescription opioids, such as Vicodin come in low and high dosage levels. When taken orally, certain effects can be expected. On the other hand, changing the route of delivery to smoking intensifies or strengthens the drug’s effect due to how quickly it takes hold.

This is especially true for extended-release and controlled release forms of opioids. Rather than spread the dose out over a period of hours, the full effects of the drug reach the brain within seconds. These interactions make higher potency levels one of the more dangerous risks of smoking opioids.

Faster Tolerance Rates

The brain works to maintain a certain chemical equilibrium to keep the body’s systems running smoothly. When chemical imbalances develop, the brain’s ability to regulate the body’s processes declines. The effects of opioids disrupt this delicate chemical system, especially when patterns of abuse start to take shape.

Smoking opioids forces the release of certain chemicals, namely dopamine and serotonin. When these chemical levels run high on a repeated basis, the brain lowers its sensitivity to opioids. When this happens, you have to ingest larger doses of the drug to experience the desired “high” effect. This creates a cycle of increasing tolerance levels since the brain will continue to lower its sensitivity levels as larger doses are ingested. This cycle repeats even faster when smoking opioids.

Lung Problems

Whether you’re smoking prescription-based opioids or heroin, you’re also smoking the filler agents used to manufacture these drugs. Many of the fillers used to make prescription opioids are inactive ingredients but can still cause damage to the lungs. Some of the agents used include:

  • Calcium salts
  • Starch
  • Sugars
  • Lactose
  • Cellulose

Since heroin is illegal and unregulated, dealers can use whatever types of fillers they want. Here are a few of them:

  • Baking soda
  • Laundry detergent
  • Caffeine
  • Starch
  • Talcum powder
  • Rat poison

These types of materials can do considerable damage to the lungs. Someone smoking opioids on a frequent basis has a high risk of developing lung infections. You’re also likely to develop a chronic cough. While not life-threatening these risks of smoking opioids can turn into serious medical problems down the road.

Increased Addiction Risk

Your brain’s natural response to seek out pleasurable experiences goes into hyper-drive with a developing addiction. An area of the brain known as the pleasure center plays a pivotal role in forming your motivations, priorities as well as determining what you think you need to survive. Since smoking opioids delivers a stronger dose at a faster rate, the brain’s drug-seeking response increases considerably. For these reasons, addiction risks of smoking opioids run higher than if you ingested them in pill form.

Increased Overdose Risk

Opioids act as depressants, meaning they slow down the body’s processes. With a large enough dose, major processes can actually start to shut down, especially the ones the regulate your breathing. When you factor in rising tolerance levels and the need to keep ingesting larger doses to experience a “high,” the risk of overdose increases with each passing day. Smoking opioids only speed this process along since the “high” effect is more intense and wears off sooner than when taking pills.

Mental Health Problems

Opioid abuse and mental instability tend to go hand-in-hand. The brain chemical imbalances caused by opioids create prime conditions for psychological problems, such as depression and anxiety disorders to develop. People who don’t know they have mental health issues are often drawn to substance abuse because it provides relief from uncomfortable symptoms. Also, for people already struggling with mental health problems, abusing opioids will likely make their symptoms worse.


Over the past two decades, opioid addiction has become the scourge of American society. It’s an aggressive form of addiction that becomes progressively worse when left to its own devices. If you’re reached the point where opioid use has gotten out of control, it may be time to consider seeking treatment, especially if you smoke opioids on a regular basis. Once addiction takes hold, putting off the decision to get help will only make it harder to see the problem for what it is.

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Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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