FAQ » Opiates/Prescription Drugs » Opioids

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are frequently prescribed medications that effectively relieve many different types of pain. With proper use, opioids like morphine have a long history of helping to reduce severe pain after surgery. They are also used to relieve the pain people experience with cancer. However, opioid drugs are narcotics and can be unhealthy or even dangerous when misused or abused.

In recent years, morphine and similar drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone have been prescribed to treat chronic pain caused by other ailments. For some, opioid drugs have been helpful, but for others, it’s the source of problems like drug dependence and addiction.

According to 2018 CDC data, in the United States, 41 people die each day from an overdose of prescription painkillers, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drug overdose is now the greatest cause of accidental death, taking the lead over auto accidents, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Opioids vs Opiates

The term opiate is often used incorrectly to include all drugs with effects similar to heroin. Opiates are narcotic drugs containing opium or other ingredients found in the poppy plant. When the drugs are synthetic or semi-synthetic, they are called opioids.

Prescription drugs are actually classified under the broader term opioid. Many widely used painkillers prescribed by doctors are opioids. Semi-synthetic opioids include hydrocodone, hydromorphone, oxycodone and oxymorphone, which are made from opiates, but are not opiates themselves.

Opioid Dependence and Addiction

Problems with opioids develop due to changes in brain structure with continued use. When the drugs affect the part of the brain regulating dopamine, a dependence develops. Changes in how dopamine is transmitted in the brain results in drug addiction when the opioid receptors cause serious alterations in the brain. These changes lead to opioid dependence, withdrawal and cravings, requiring substance abuse treatment.

If the drug is withheld, drug cravings and compulsions to obtain the drug occur. Physical dependence results when the body has adapted to the drug and experiences withdrawal symptoms when opioid intake is reduced or abruptly stopped.

Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms

Within the first 24 hours after the last dose, opioid withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Muscle aches
  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Tearing eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Excessive sweating
  • Insomnia
  • Excessive yawning

After 24 hours, more intense symptoms begin and may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach cramping
  • Goosebumps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dilation of pupils
  • Blurred vision
  • Elevated heartbeat
  • Elevated blood pressure

Some of the side effects of opioid abuse carry social impact, such as:

  • Loss of support of family and friends
  • Isolation
  • Relationship problems
  • Problems with work or school
  • Financial problems

Some of the side effects of opioid abuse impact health, such as:

  • Insomnia
  • Skin abscesses
  • Pulmonary complications
  • Heart infections
  • Collapsed veins
  • Lung damage
  • Liver damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Brain damage
  • Death from overdose

The Safest Route

It’s safest to take a prescription drug using the method exactly as directed. To avoid an overdose, it’s essential to take opioids as prescribed, and avoid mixing them with other medications unless directed to do so by a healthcare practitioner.