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Demerol Addiction & Abuse: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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Demerol, the brand name version of meperidine, is an opioid pain reliever that changes how the brain and nervous system perceive pain. 

Especially with prolonged use, meperidine can be habit forming and lead to addiction and overdose. Fortunately, treatment options are available for individuals struggling with Demerol addiction and abuse. 

What Is Demerol? 

Demerol is a prescription opioid medication used to treat moderate to severe pain. It is best used to treat acute pain for less than 48 hours, such as following an injury or surgery. It can be taken as a tablet, syrup, or injectable solution. 

The use of Demerol is recommended only when other pain management options are unavailable or ineffective. Any use of Demerol outside of as prescribed by a doctor is considered abuse and can lead to addiction. 

Quick Facts on Demerol

  • Meperidine, the generic name for Demerol, alters how the brain perceives pain, helping patients to experience less pain.
  • Demerol can be addictive in a short period of time. Because of this, it is only prescribed for short-term use.
  • Addiction to Demerol is generally treated with medication-assisted treatment (MAT), where medications like buprenorphine or methadone are used to alleviate withdrawal and cravings while clients participate in therapy.

Who Abuses Demerol?

Demerol can be abused by people who are prescribed the drug or by anyone who obtains it illegally. 

Demerol abuse is part of a greater public health crisis occurring across the United States. For a one-year period that ended in April 2021, over 100,000 Americans died from drug overdose, and the majority of these deaths were attributed to opioids like Demerol.  

The majority of Americans overdosing on opioids are non-Hispanic Caucasian individuals, at 79 percent, followed by Black and non-Hispanic individuals at 10 percent. About 8 percent of opioid overdoses occurred in Hispanic people. 

People of all ages and genders abuse opioids, and overdose death rates have increased across all age groups since 1999. 

Causes of Demerol Addiction

Demerol is an addictive substance that is easily misused. Anyone who uses Demerol for an extended period is at risk of addiction. 

The exact causes of an opioid use disorder, such as Demerol addiction, are unknown. However, certain factors can increase the likelihood of an opioid use disorder (OUD) developing, such as these:

  • An individual’s personal response to opioids
  • Family history of substance abuse
  • Early exposure to substance use
  • History of trauma or abuse
  • Co-occurring mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety
  • Access to prescription opioids
  • Peer pressure

It is essential for prescribing physicians to screen for risk of OUD. Individuals should also be aware of their personal and family history to monitor their risk of developing an opioid use disorder, even if the medication is prescribed by a doctor. 

If you have risk factors for OUD, talk to your doctor about alternative pain management options or how best to use your prescription to guard against abuse. 

How Does Demerol Impact the Mind & Body?

Demerol impacts the body by altering the perception of acute or chronic pain. It has the same mechanism of action as morphine, working on opioid-receptors in the brain. 

Opioids, like Demerol, work by reducing the perception of pain. While reducing sensations of pain, they can also cause euphoria, confusion, nausea, and drowsiness, among other symptoms. 

Opioids work to suppress the central nervous system, impacting essential functions like breathing. High doses of opioids can slow breathing to the point of death. 

Many people who end up addicted to heroin start by misusing prescription painkillers. While Demerol isn’t the most common prescription painkiller — opioids like Vicodin, OxyContin, Norco, and Percocet are more common —it is a desirable opioid of abuse due to its potency. Demerol might just be harder to access.

Withdrawal Symptoms of Demerol Addiction

Since Demerol is a potent opioid medication, using it for longer periods can lead to tolerance, dependence, and addiction. Abruptly stopping the medication after prolonged use (more than a couple weeks) can lead to withdrawal symptoms. Physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms include the following:

  • Restlessness
  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Yawning
  • Sweating
  • Chills 
  • Muscle aches and pain
  • Upset stomach and stomach pain
  • Irritability and nervousness 
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea 
  • Rapid breathing and heart rate
  • Back pain 

To minimize potential withdrawal symptoms, doctors often recommend gradually decreasing your Demerol dosage. This allows the body to adjust to the lower amounts of meperidine, so withdrawal symptoms are lessened. This is the recommended approach for physical dependence without OUD.

If OUD is present, a comprehensive treatment approach, often including use of MAT, is recommended. Without addressing the issues related to addiction, relapse to Demerol misuse is likely.

Can You Overdose on Demerol?

As with all opioids, misuse of Demerol poses a risk of overdose. People particularly at risk of a Demerol overdose include the following:

  • Individuals with an underlying condition that makes them more sensitive to the effects of Demerol
  • People who either intentionally or accidentally take more than their prescribed dosage
  • People who take meperidine at the same time as alcohol or other drugs, especially central nervous system depressants

Opioid overdose often occurs after someone who was once dependent on opioids relapses. After withdrawal, individuals have a much lower tolerance for opioids than the last time they used, though they may not realize it. If they take the same dose they previously took, they may relapse, and this could be fatal. 

Overdose Symptoms

An increasing number of people die each year in the United States due to an opioid-related overdose. Knowing the signs of a Demerol overdose is essential to prevent it from becoming fatal. 

The signs of an opioid overdose, as outlined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), include the following:

  • Extremely pale and/or clammy face
  • Limp body
  • Fingernails or lips appearing purplish or bluish 
  • Vomiting or gurgling noises
  • Cannot be awakened
  • Inability to speak
  • Drastically slowed or stopped breathing or heartbeat 

When in the presence of someone exhibiting any of the above symptoms, it is important to seek emergency medical care immediately. The first step is to call 911 for emergency assistance. While waiting for help to arrive, CPR should be administered if the person’s breathing has stopped or is very weak. 

If it is available, naloxone should be administered to reverse the overdose. Naloxone is an FDA-approved medication for the immediate treatment of opioid overdoses. SAMHSA recommends that anyone who lives with or is frequently around someone who regularly uses opioids learns how to administer naloxone and keeps it on hand. 

There is no evidence of any substantial adverse reaction to naloxone. It is a lifesaving medication.

Treatment Options for Demerol Addiction

Demerol addiction is most effectively treated with a combination of approaches, including medication, counseling, and behavioral therapy. Unfortunately, only about 30 percent of people with an opioid use disorder access effective, evidenced-based treatments


Medications used to treat OUD include the following:

  • Methadone and buprenorphine to prevent withdrawal symptoms and reduce opioid cravings
  • Naltrexone, which blocks the euphoric effects of opioids
  • Standard medications used to treat aches and pains 

The treatment process begins with withdrawal. Utilizing the above medications can reduce highly uncomfortable physical and psychological symptoms that may interfere with a successful withdrawal process. 

While medications can be essential to recovery from OUD, they aren’t sufficient on their own. They must be used in conjunction with therapy.


The core of treatment continues with behavioral and psychological counseling.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, which includes education about substance use, encourages individuals to think differently about their opioid use in order to establish healthier habits. This is an effective treatment approach

In therapy sessions, clients will identify underlying reasons that led to their opioid misuse, and they’ll learn how to manage relapse triggers. Therapy is often part of a person’s recovery for the long term, though the intensity and frequency of therapy sessions generally lessen over time as the person gains a stronger footing in recovery.

Support Groups

Support groups can also play a vital role in supporting long-term recovery. Organizations like Narcotics Anonymous offer free support groups to individuals in recovery around the world. 

Many addiction treatment programs include peer support group participation as a core component of their programs. These groups allow participants to build a strong network to support their ongoing recovery.

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Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated September 1, 2023
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