Opioids are either derived from, or chemically similar to, compounds found in opium poppies. Opioids include:
Opioids can be used appropriately several ways. They can be taken orally as a pill, or they can be administered by an oral film patch, which dissolves in the mouth. Opioids can also be administered intravenously to manage pain, most often in surgical situations.
Prescription opioids can be misused a number of ways, too. They can be taken orally as a pill, but in higher dosages than prescribed, or without a prescription at all. They can also be crushed up and inhaled or injected. Heroin can be inhaled, injected, or smoked.
There are appropriate and medically necessary uses for prescription opioids. They are effective in treating certain types of pain, or helping people recover from complex medical procedures. Pain resulting from things like broken bones and cancer can be effectively treated with opioids.
Opioids have medical uses as well as serious risks.
What’s more, one of the most effective treatments for opioid addiction actually involves the use of medications—some of which contain opioids—which can help ease withdrawal and reduce cravings to help maintain recovery.
That’s why opioid prescriptions should be personalized to suit each patient’s unique needs and carefully monitored by health care providers.
These drugs bond to opioid receptors in the human body and brain, blocking pain. In addition to providing pain relief, opioids can produce feelings of euphoria and relaxation—especially when misused (taking the wrong dosage, using without a prescription).
Side effects of opioids can include nausea, confusion, and depression. Opioids also quickly build both tolerance and physical dependence, which can lead users to take larger and larger doses in order to feel the same relief. This can lead to addiction and overdose.
When misused, opioids flood the brain with dopamine. This process creates intense feelings of euphoria, and also encourages the brain to repeat the behavior, which can lead to addiction.
Many people with addiction are attempting to soothe or heal themselves in some way.
For people addicted to opioids, these drugs are often providing them with something that they're not getting out of daily life. People who’ve had opioid use disorders say these drugs created feelings of warmth, happiness, and acceptance inside of them. They describe feeling good in a way they’d never really experienced before. These feelings can motivate someone to continue to use, even when that use is putting their health at risk or causing problems in their life.
During an opioid overdose, a person’s breathing becomes dangerously slow, and then stops completely. With the opioid suppressing neurological signals, the heart rate slows down, too.
There are several highly effective treatment options for opioid addiction. The gold standard is medications—including methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone—which greatly reduce the risk of deadly overdose, reduce cravings, and help many patients achieve lasting recovery. Therapy, support groups, and other treatments work well, too.
Learn how naloxone works, where to get it, and how to use it to save a life.
Pain management after medical procedures can be stressful for people with a history of addiction. But prescription pills aren’t the only option.
Looking for support? From treatment finders to recovery groups to grief support, browse addiction resources here.