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Opioids Drug Facts

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are the category of drugs primarily used for medical purposes as pain relievers. They are usually extracted from the poppy plant seeds or can be synthesized in special laboratories. Most opioids obtained in a natural way are approved for use as prescription drugs. 

Meanwhile, only several synthetic opioid substances are allowed in medicine as such drugs are especially addictive and often lead to drug abuse.

Related article: Opioid-Related Hospitalization Rises For Chronic Disease Sufferers

What are Prescription opioids used for?

Prescription opioids are used as pain relievers to help in handling migraine attacks, post-traumatic syndrome, and control other types of severe or moderate ache. Opioid painkillers affect the brain by blocking or reducing the hurting signals. At the same time, opioid pain relievers can be highly addictive and dangerous.

Drug abuse and opioid overdose are the most common problems associated with pain relievers in the United States.

Prescription opioids cause relaxation and euphoria so that these drugs are often used for non-medical purposes. In medicine, only a few synthetic opioid substances can be used in pain management. Synthetic opioid drugs can be highly addictive and even lead to serious health problems.

Related article: Opioid Addiction: The Road to Recovery

What are the common prescription opioids?

This group of opioid pain relievers includes prescription drugs only for medical purposes. A doctor indicates the amount of prescription opioid medicine needed for the patient's treatment. The most commonly used prescription opioids are listed below:

  • oxymorphone
  • morphine
  • oxycodone
  • hydrocodone
  • codeine
  • Fentanyl


The opioid analgesic oxymorphone is used in pain management, especially in the obstetrics sphere. It may also be used as an addition to the anesthesia in certain cases.


Being a strong painkiller, morphine is widely used in medicine for addressing severe pain. Morphine appears as an effective pain reliever for people after operations and serious injuries.


This prescription opioid is widely used in pain management for treating moderate or severe ache. It is available in the form of capsules or tablets. The use of oxycodone has such side effects as a strong feeling of sickness and drowsiness.


This drug is not that strong as oxycodone, so it is usually used to treat moderate pain. Its typical side effects are sneezing, sore throat, and fatigue.


Found naturally in the opium poppy plant, codeine is a naturally extracted medical drug. It is often used for treating mild or moderate pain and also commonly abused.


Similar to morphine, fentanyl is a prescription opioid used for helping patients to handle pain after surgeries or injuries. This drug is also misused and often produced illegally as it causes powerful sedative feelings and euphoria.

What are the common synthetic opioids?

Similar to natural opioid pain relievers, synthetic opioids influence the brain and the entire organism in the same way. However, synthetic opioids are made in scientific laboratories rather than extracted naturally. As synthetic opioids also produce the analgesic effect, some of them were approved to be used for pain management in the United States.

Is opioid use legal?

While some types of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and methadone are often used for pain management and medical purposes, other types are considered to be illicit drugs. One of those illegal substances is heroin which is probably one of the most popular in drug abuse.

It is rather dangerous as it has a strong effect that comes in seconds, so it might be particularly dangerous. People who take heroin on a regular basis are very likely to overdose on it.

Related article: Johnson & Johnson Opioid Lawsuit - What You Should Know

Effects of Prescription Opioids on Health


Short-term effects of prescription opioids

The frequency of taking prescription opioids depends on the pain management plan as a part of the treatment course. The doctors carefully indicate the number of opioid pain relievers needed though some immediate side effects might be noticeable. The National Institute on Drug Abuse of the United States has identified some of the most common short-term effects of prescription opioids.


Slow breathing

Prescription opioids tend to slow down the central nervous system of an individual. As a result, such a vital process as breathing regulation may be retarded.


With the breathing process slowed down, not enough oxygen is carried in the blood. It means that certain organs and body systems do not have enough resources to continue normal functioning. The lack of oxygen may lead to irreversible processes in the human organism.


When the regularity and amount of defecation become irregular, this signifies another effect of drug abuse. If constipation is ongoing, the doctor may prescribe other pain killers.


This effect is noticeable particularly when opioid overdose takes place. It triggers the intoxication of the entire organism which naturally causes nausea, vomiting, and dizziness.


Prescription opioids have a strong relaxing effect, so the state of drowsiness is very common immediately after taking those pain relievers.

Long-term effects of prescription opioids

The prolonged use of prescription opioids may result in drug abuse and severe changes in the organism. It causes muscle deterioration which naturally impacts motor skills negatively. Furthermore, a regular opioid overdose makes the immune system weaker so that body systems get more fragile.

Why do people switch from oral to injectable opioids?

People with long-term drug abuse switch from oral opioids to injectable ones because they have a quicker and stronger effect. The injections are usually unsafe as the needles might be used by several different people. Consequently, people involved have risks for obtaining hepatitis C, blood infections. and other viruses transmitted via blood.

Why are Opioid substances more dangerous?

It is believed that synthetic opioid substances are more dangerous and have a stronger impact on the human organism. Even a small drug amount may cause an opioid overdose right away. The continuous drug abuse of either synthetic opioid substances or opioid painkillers causes brain and liver deterioration. In some cases, drug abuse may lead to death.

Can a person overdose on prescription opioids?

According to the data published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse around 50,000 people died because of opioid overdose in 2019. Prescription opioid drugs and synthetic opioids are easy substances to overdose on. When consuming too many drugs, the human organism will not be able to process them at once, resulting in an opioid overdose. 

The addiction to pain relievers and synthetic opioids is a national crisis in the United States. Such cases are very dangerous as they may lead not only to health problems but even cause death.

The first signs of opioid overdose are significant difficulties in breathing. The increased amount of opioids may also interrupt normal blood flow and affect veins. Consequently, the brain does not receive a fair amount of oxygen from the blood which may cause permanent damage.

When one notices that a person has at least one of the opioid overdose signs mentioned above, it is necessary to call 911 immediately. Make sure that the affected person has access to the fresh air meanwhile waiting for the ambulance.

There might be multiple reasons for people to get into opioid overdose. In some cases, it might occur unintentionally, while in other instances taking more prescription opioids than needed would be intentional. In the latter case, drug abuse is not likely associated with pain management but with narcotic substance addiction.

How can opioid overdose be treated?


Even when the opioid overdose takes place, there is much one can do about helping the affected person. Timely basic life support increases chances for the person's survival and further recovery.

In cases when opioid drugs have resulted in overdose, the medicine naloxone comes in handy. It is a so-called antidote to prescription opioids that helps to reverse their effects. The naloxone medicine should be used shortly after the drug overdose as it immediately blocks the influence of opioids.

Related article: Opioid Addiction: The Road to Recovery

The naloxone medicine might be used in the form of tablets or nasal spray to treat drug overdose. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has made a resource providing all the necessary information about naloxone, including the locations where it could be obtained. Previously, naloxone was available only in medical establishments though recently it is also available over the counter without a doctor's prescription. However, naloxone availability and distribution also depend on the laws and regulations of the particular state.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse continuously performs a series of research studies aimed at identifying the reasons other than pain management that cause substance addiction. Based on the obtained data, new strategies for improved treatment and prevention of drug abuse are being elaborated.

How can opioid addiction be treated?

The years of study and research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse have proven that Opioids substance use can be treated. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, behavioral therapy and medication treatment are used together to combat opioid addiction. The treatment depends on the type of opioid used and the duration of its intake. 

When prescription opioids are misused or taken for non-medical purposes, the National Institute of Drug Abuses investigates the reasons leading to the inappropriate intake of those substances. The roots of drug abuse may be based on socioeconomic, psychological, or environmental grounds.

To address opioid addiction, the treatment course always includes behavioral therapy. That might be either individual counseling for the affected person or mental health services for a group of people. Health services administration may also allocate certain areas in medical establishments dedicated specifically to rehabilitation courses for drug-addicted people.

Another way of addressing drug abuse is by providing the treatment with medicines. However, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, only around 20 percent of affected people require medication treatment. It might be essential though when a person has severe withdrawal symptoms or used to intake prescription opioids of strong effect such as heroin.

Related article: The Different Types of Treatment Programs in Rehab

Withdrawal symptoms of Opioids


At some point, when prescription opioids are no longer needed as pain relievers, a person stops taking those. In case opioids were used for non-medical purposes, a person may take a decision to quit drug abuse. Most likely the withdrawal symptoms will be present in both cases.

The severity of withdrawal syndrome depends on the duration, frequency, and intensity of opioids used. Drugs do affect the way nerve receptors work, so getting rid of or decreasing the intake amount of prescription opioids causes responses from the body which are called withdrawal symptoms.

The first signs of withdrawal are evident within the first 24 hours after stopping using opioid pain relievers. The most common symptoms are anxiety, insomnia, muscle ache, and sweating. Those might be accompanied by nausea, diarrhea, high blood pressure, and a heartbeat rate increase. Those symptoms weaken over 5-7 days but the discomfort they cause may force a person to start using opioids again.

In case withdrawal symptoms are rather severe, medication treatment may take place. Such substances such as methadone and buprenorphine are usually prescribed by certified physicians or nurse practitioners in such cases. Those medicines influence the same receptors as opioids but at a lower intensity.

Control over opioid distribution

The opioid pain relievers are prescribed by certified physicians or nurse practitioners and can be obtained in pharmacies or drugstores. However, very often opioids are manufactured and distributed illegally. Thus, a dedicated organization named Drug Enforcement Administration is aimed to control and eliminate illicit activities.

The Drug Enforcement Administration is mainly in charge of regulating the manufacturing and distribution of drugs. This organization focuses primarily on trafficking illegal drugs or substances and designs programs aimed to prevent that. Also, the Drug Enforcement Administration supports education incentives for improving the public awareness of hazards and impacts of drug abuse.

Related article: 3 Ways You Can Practice Self-Care During Recovery


Prescription opioids are primarily used for medical purposes as pain relievers. However, people sometimes continue using opioid pain relievers for non-medical purposes as these substances tend to cause addiction within a few days. Such drug abuse usually causes vomiting, drowsiness, hypoxia, slowed breathing, and heart problems. Continuous use of opioid drugs may cause overdose, which might be really hazardous for the human organism.

To address opioid substance misuse, the National Instance on Drug Abuse investigates its reasons and develops treatment suggestions. To help people get rid of opioid addiction, counseling and medication therapy are applied. The latter is very common when a person has severe withdrawal symptoms after stopping to intake prescription opioids.

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Related Resources

Opioid-Related Hospitalization Rises For Chronic Disease Sufferers
Opioid Addiction: The Road to Recovery
Johnson & Johnson Opioid Lawsuit - What You Should Know
Opioid Addiction: The Road to Recovery
The Different Types of Treatment Programs in Rehab
3 Ways You Can Practice Self-Care During Recovery

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