Opioids, also known as opiates, are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin as well as powerful pain relievers available legally as prescriptions. Opioids can also be classified as natural and synthetic painkiller drugs derived from or based on the poppy plant. The related term "opiate" is used to define the drugs that are derived from only natural opium poppy products. Both opiates and opioids present great risks for opioid dependence, addiction, overdose, and even death.
Opioids bind to and activate opioid receptors located in many areas of the brain, spinal cord, and gastrointestinal tract. The most affected receptors are those specifically designated with feelings of pain and pleasure. When opioids attach to these receptors, they block pain signals sent from the brain to the body and release large amounts of dopamine in the brain's reward center. The brain thinks that a significant biological event has transpired and attempts to repeat the process which leads to dependence and ultimately addiction.
Examples of prescribed opioid medications include:
Codeine – an ingredient in some cough syrups and in one Tylenol® product
Hydrocodone – Vicodin®, Lortab®, or Lorcet®
Oxycodone – Percocet®, OxyContin®, or Percodan®
Hydromorphone – Dilaudid®
Morphine – MSContin®, MSIR®, Avinza®, or Kadian®
Propoxyphene – Darvocet® or Darvon®
Fentanyl – Duragesic®