Coping with a Family Member’s Opioid Addiction

Last Updated July 2023 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Deepak S. Patel, MD, FAAFP, FACSM

Opioid addiction (or opioid use disorder, as it is now known) has become a national public health crisis. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) 2 out of 3 drug overdose deaths in 2018 (the most recent data) involved an opioid, such as the prescription drugs hydrocodone, fentanyl, and oxycontin.

This surge in the misuse of opioid drugs affects millions of people. Not just the persons using the drugs, but their friends and family as well. If you have a friend or loved one with an opioid addiction, you may be wondering how to cope with it. You probably wonder how you can help or what you should do.

Path to improved health

Watching someone you care about struggle with addiction is incredibly difficult. It can make you feel helpless. You may feel like you are not prepared to help. You may even try to convince yourself that your loved one doesn’t have a problem.

The best thing you can do if you suspect your loved one is misusing opioids is educate yourself about addiction. This can help you spot the warning signs of addiction, including:

  • A change in personality. This can include mood swings and doing things that are out of character.
  • No interest in usual activities. Someone who is becoming dependent on opioids may not enjoy things they used to enjoy doing.
  • Continuing to use opioids in spite of negative effects. Signs of this may include being sleepy during the day or falling asleep at odd times. They just can’t seem to stay awake or focus.
  • Being focused on satisfying their craving for opioids. They may change doctors frequently or see multiple doctors. A person who has an opioid addiction may also use multiple pharmacies to help hide their addiction. They may call for early refills or claim they lost their medication.

Talking about it

It can be challenging to talk to your loved one about their opioid addiction. It is common for them to be defensive about using opioids. They will likely deny that they have a problem. They may even become angry.

It may be easier to talk to them with the help of another person. You could enlist the help of a substance abuse counselor, a guidance counselor, a clergy member, or even another family member.

Some people choose to have what is called an intervention. This is where a group of people come together to have a conversation with a friend or family member about their addiction. Interventions can be helpful when your loved one has already denied having a problem. They also are useful when that person may admit they have a problem but refuse to get help.

Whichever way you choose to talk to your friend or family member, do it with love and support. Avoid blaming them for their addiction. It is important to encourage them to seek help for their addiction. It is also important to let them know they are not alone. Addiction is a disease that can happen to anyone of any race, any social class, or any religion.

Recovery programs

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a national helpline for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This helpline (800-662-HELP) is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral information service. It is available in English and Spanish, and provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. Callers also can order free publications and other information.

You also can turn to your family doctor. They can diagnose opioid use disorder (misusing  opioid medicines) and opioid addiction and offer treatment. There are medicines that are effective for the treatment of opioid disorders, especially when combined with behavioral therapy. These medicines are approved by the Federal Drug Administration for treating opioid use disorder and addition: methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone.

Family and friends support groups

Addiction takes a toll on families. It strains friendships. It’s easy to blame yourself. Or you may be tempted to “cut off” your loved one who is struggling with their addiction. On the other hand, you may find yourself excusing their behavior and enabling their addiction. All of these emotions are common.

Consider joining a support group that can offer guidance during this stressful and confusing time. There are Nar-Anon Family Groups that offer worldwide fellowship for those affected by someone else’s addiction. There is also Narateen for teens affected by someone else’s addiction. There are a number of other support groups, too. Many are regional. Most offer options for online support. Your family doctor is often the best place to start when looking for a support group.

Things to consider

Opioid addiction puts a strain on relationships. It is difficult to watch a loved one struggle and suffer with addiction. It also can be alarming to see what addiction does to their personality. Addiction can cause drastic changes in behavior, too. It can drive a wedge between people who were close.

It is important to never stop encouraging your loved one. Their road to recovery may be a long one. They may relapse. It will not be easy for either of you. You will need to set limits or boundaries. If your loved one is a close family member, you may need to set these limits to guard your finances or your home.

Keep in mind that opioid addiction is a chronic illness. It should be treated the same as other chronic illnesses. Like those, it should continually be managed and monitored. Your loved one has an addiction, but it’s also an illness. When you think in those terms, it may be easier to offer your unconditional love and support for them.

You also should consider keeping NARCAN with you or in your home. NARCAN is a medicine designed to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose. It is available as a prepackaged nasal spray. This makes it easy to use in an emergency situation. You spray it into one nostril of the person who has overdosed.

Opioid addiction does not have a clear link to genetics. This means is doesn’t seem to be something that runs in families, according to the National Institutes of Health. However, people who have family members with addiction seem to be at higher risk of addiction. This could be because of lifestyle or environmental factors.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How can I tell if a loved one is misusing opioids?
  • If a loved one is misusing opioids, does this mean they are addicted to them?
  • Should I confront a loved one about their opioid addiction?
  • Can a loved one overcome addiction on their own?
  • How can I tell if a loved one is experiencing opioid withdrawals?
  • Is there a test that can show if someone has been using opioids?
  • What are pain medicines that can be used instead of opioids?

Funding support for this material has been provided to the American Academy of Family Physicians by Indivior, Inc.


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