Laudanum is a solution of opium, and is highly addictive. It has been classified as a Schedule II controlled substance by the FDA.
In the 19th century, laudanum was readily prescribed for all kinds of ailments from cough and diarrhea (two common ailments of the time) to headache and menstrual cramps. You could obtain laudanum without a prescription, and it was cheaper than a bottle of gin. These facts led to widespread laudanum addiction.
No longer considered a cure-all, laudanum is still prescribed today, but on a limited basis, primarily as a potent anti-diarrheal. Off-label, it is prescribed for pain, and to treat infants born suffering from opiate withdrawal.
Understanding Laudanum Abuse
By the early 20th century, the U.S. government began regulating the sale of potentially dangerous drugs such as laudanum. The first step was to legally mandate that patent medicines clearly list all ingredients—such as cocaine, heroin, alcohol, morphine, and cannabis—on the label. This law caused sales of medicines containing opiates to drop by 33%.
Even so, there were still plenty of addicts left to buy laudanum. Opiate drugs are some of the most addictive in the world. Due to how they function in the brain, opiates literally train you to seek out more drugs, even when you suffer negative consequences from using.
The opium in laudanum binds to opioid receptors in your brain, blocking pain signals and causing the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. The brain uses dopamine to reinforce life-sustaining behaviors such as eating and sex, training us to repeat them.
This is the brain’s reward pathway, as described in this Harvard Health Publication on the addicted brain. Normally, dopamine is slowly and steadily released in small amounts. Abusing opiate drugs causes a rapid release of large amounts of dopamine, producing a rush of euphoria and intense calm. This process “rewards” the user for drug use at a level of intensity that makes the urge to repeat the behavior almost impossible to resist.
Signs and Symptoms of Laudanum Abuse
Most addicts are secretive about when and how much they use. This can make it challenging to know for certain if a loved one is hooked on prescription medication. There are, however, a few things you can look out for.
Addicts tend to run out of medication too early, and they will lie about having lost a prescription to get a new one. They will visit multiple doctors or clinics, or “doctor shop.”
Other signs and symptoms of an addiction to laudanum or another prescription opiate may include:
- new financial concerns
- confused thinking
- lack of energy
- excessive sleepiness
- mood swings
- anxiety and depression
- irregular body temperature
- erratic behavior
- isolation from family and friends
- changes in appearance
Dangers of Laudanum Abuse
Due to the laudanum’s potency, and the fact that it comes in an easy to take, oral, liquid form, it is quite easy to overdose on laudanum. Death by laudanum was a commonplace method of suicide in the 19th century.
Sadly, fatal overdose from opiate drugs is still commonplace now. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every day, 91 Americans die from an opioid overdose.
The Drug Enforcement Administration’s publication on Drugs of Abuse lists the following possible signs of an opium overdose:
- slow breathing
- loss of consciousness
From Opiates to Heroin
Another possible danger of an addiction to laudanum or another opioid is that addicts may escalate their drug use to heroin.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration states that: “As people use opioids repeatedly, their tolerance increases and they may not be able to maintain the source for the drugs. This can cause them to turn to the black market for these drugs and even switch from prescription drugs to cheaper and more risky substitutes like heroin.”
Who Abuses Laudanum?
There is no one type of person who abuses laudanum, but there are some people who may be more vulnerable to it. Laudanum and other opiates have a calming affect you may use to self-medicate an undiagnosed panic or anxiety disorder. If you suffer from depression you may find the lift of an opiate-caused dopamine release irresistible.
Sadly, these temporary effects will backfire when regular opiate abuse leads to physical dependence. Among the symptoms of opium withdrawal are anxiety and dysthymia—a depressive condition characterized by an inability to feel pleasure.
According to MedlinePlus, other symptoms of opiate withdrawal include:
- muscle aches
- increased tearing
- runny nose
Late symptoms of withdrawal include:
- abdominal cramping
- dilated pupils
- goose bumps
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that “anyone who takes prescription opioids can become addicted to them. In fact, as many as one in four patients receiving long-term opioid therapy in a primary care setting struggles with opioid addiction. Once addicted, it can be hard to stop. In 2014, nearly two million Americans either abused or were dependent on prescription opioid pain relievers.”
Am I Addicted to Laudanum?
Maybe you aren’t sure that you have a laudanum addiction. How can you tell if you do?
Read through the following statements and honestly consider how they may relate to you and your relationship to drugs.
- I often feel like all my time and energy is devoted to obtaining and using laudanum.
- I feel compelled to use laudanum regularly —daily or even several times a day.
- I suffer from intense cravings for drugs that I feel incapable of resisting.
- It is very important to me to always maintain a supply of laudanum.
- I spend more money than I can afford on drugs.
- I need to take more laudanum now than I did when I started using.
- I have withdrawn from people and activities I used to love.
- I have started taking risks or doing things that I wouldn’t have before I started using laudanum.
- I feel like I can’t enjoy myself, feel normal, or get through the day without laudanum.
- I have tried and failed to quit laudanum before.
- When I did try, I experienced withdrawal symptoms such as those listed above.
- Even though I have experienced major life upheavals due to my drug use—such as a car accident, family problems, a breakup, job loss, or getting arrested, I still feel unable to quit using on my own.
If you see yourself reflected in one or more of these statements, you are likely in need of professional addiction help.
Laudanum Addiction Treatment
On a day to day basis, dealing with an addiction can be overwhelming. You may feel incapable of getting help, the same way you feel incapable of living a life that doesn’t revolve around drug use.
And it is true that addiction recovery can be a challenging process—but taking that first step doesn’t have to be.
Imagine how wonderful it will be to have a life with enough room for you to dream in, a life with direction and meaning that you can feel good about.
According to Harvard Health, opiate “withdrawal symptoms — agitation; anxiety; tremors; muscle aches; hot and cold flashes; sometimes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea — are not life-threatening, but are extremely uncomfortable. The intensity of the reaction depends on the dose and speed of withdrawal. Short-acting opiates, like heroin, tend to produce more intense but briefer symptoms.”
A doctor at a qualified drug and alcohol treatment facility will know how to best taper your dosage to reduce withdrawal symptoms. You may also be prescribed medications like Suboxone and Subutex to help you get through the early days of your recovery.
Once your body is physically free of addictive substances, you will be able to move onto freeing your mind. Substance abuse treatment works best when it is tailored to the needs of each individual patient. Still, though, there are some treatment modalities that will show up in all recovery plans.
- Talk therapy, including individual, group and family sessions
- Support groups and 12-step meetings
- Drug education to make sure you are informed about how drugs work in the body and what short and long-term effects they have
- Relapse prevention counseling