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®

Addiction Signs and Symptoms

Opioid use disorder is a medical condition defined by not being able to abstain from using opioids, and behaviors centered around opioid use that interferes with daily life. Dependence occurs when the body adapts to the presence of the drug, causing withdrawal symptoms when use is reduced or discontinued. Often, individuals may become addicted to prescription painkillers, and then turn to illicit drugs like heroin. Heroin is cheaper and easier to access than prescription drugs.

Signs of addiction include:

  • Repeated use of a substance while increasing the quantities

  • A repeated failure to reduce the use of the substance

  • Developing a tolerance, requiring greater usage to achieve the same effect

  • The inclination to criminal activity or risky behaviors

  • Increased cravings for the substance

  • Reduced performance at work, home, or school

  • Poor relationships with family, friends, and within social circles due to continued use

  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms after reducing after a decrease in usage

Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms

Many people experience unpleasant and painful physical symptoms of withdrawal if they reduce or stop taking opioids. These symptoms are the result of the body's dependence upon the drug. Opioid withdrawal can be dangerous, and symptoms can be severe. The withdrawal symptoms are different for each individual and will depend on the level of withdrawal they are experiencing.

Early symptoms (within 24 hours of stopping the drug):

  • Anxiety

  • Muscle aches and pains

  • Insomnia

  • Excessive sweating

  • Restless Legs

  • Repeated Yawning

Later symptoms:

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Rapid heart rate

  • Dilated pupils

  • Abdominal cramping

  • Diarrhea

  • Higher blood pressure

Opioid Abuse Prevention

Drug overdoses are a leading cause of unintentional death in the United States, and opioids are a significant factor in these accidental deaths. Addiction prevention is most effective when administered proactively. Parents who "connect" with their children and monitor their behaviors are more likely to identify addictive behaviors. Adolescents and teens are the vulnerable age group due to the fact many gateway drugs and behaviors are explored during these formative years.

Verify the proper usage of prescription opioids

  • Learn about the dangers of over-prescription and has this practice led to the opioid epidemic. Educate yourself on other pain treatments to control chronic conditions.

  • Follow prescription directions to ensure proper usage

  • Monitor your reactions to your prescriptions, other medications, and alcohol so that you are able to make healthy choices.

  • Consult with your doctor to discuss any changes with your prescription.

  • Store prescriptions safely and out of reach from other family members, children or visitors.

  • Do share prescriptions with other people

Safely dispose of unused or expired prescriptions in the home

Food and Drug Administration - Where and How to Dispose of Unused Medicines

Many communities also have their own drug take-back programs. Check with your local law enforcement officials to find a location near you or with the DEA to find a DEA-authorized collector in your community.