What are Opioids?

Pronounced as [oh-pee-oid]"

Opioids are a class of drugs that are mainly used for pain relief. The term “opioids” encompass all types of drugs whether natural, synthetic, or semi-synthetic that act on the brain’s opioid receptors.

Opioids are now prescribed for a variety of conditions such as chronic pain, cancer pain, and terminally ill patients. Opioid drugs are also called narcotics because they can become dangerous when abused.

Different Opioids

Short History of Opioids

The opium poppy plant, Papaver somniferum, has been cultivated for millennia for its medicinal and psychoactive properties. The first written record of the poppy is from the 3rd millennium BC in Mesopotamia.

Opium was used to reduce pain, induce sleep, and treat diarrhea. In the 18th century, morphine was isolated from opium and it became the first effective medication for treating pain.

Heroin was developed in the late 19th century and it was widely used as a painkiller until it was banned in the early 20th century and classified as an illegal drug.

What Are Some Examples of Opioids?

There are different types of opioids and they are used for a variety of purposes. Below are some of the most commonly used opioids:

Oxycodone (e.g. OxyContin)

This drug is used to treat moderate to severe pain. It is a semi-synthetic opioid and has similar effects to morphine but with a different chemical structure.


This drug is typically found in cough syrups and it is used to treat mild pain as well as coughing.

Hydrocodone (e.g. Vicodin)

This is a semi-synthetic opioid and it is mainly used to treat moderate to extreme pain.


This opioid is extremely potent and it is prescribed to those with extreme pain. It is usually administered via an intravenous, intramuscular, or transdermal patch.


This drug is a Schedule I controlled substance and it is an illegal opioid. Heroin has similar effects to morphine but is more potent and more dangerous.


Complete List of Opioid Drugs:

  • Codeine
  • Darvocet and Darvon
  • Demerol
  • Dilaudid
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone
  • Methadone
  • Morphine
  • Over the Counter OTC Drugs
  • Oxycodone
  • Prescription Opioids
  • Synthetic Opioids
  • Tramadol

Where Are Opioids Used For?

Different types of prescribed opioids are used to treat various medical conditions. Opioid drugs are generally prescribed for the treatment of moderate to severe pain in cases where other medications have not been effective.

Opioids can also be used for the treatment of certain types of cancer pain. Some opioids like heroin, however, are illegal drugs and not prescribed as they do not have an accepted medical use.

How Do Opioids Work? Opioid Receptors

An opioid works by attaching itself to the opioid receptors on the nerve cells in the brain. When this happens, the drug then blocks pain signals to make you calm and happy. Opioids do this by flooding your brain with dopamine.

Dopamine is a naturally-occurring chemical in our brain that our brain uses to reward our life-sustaining activities or behaviors. By associating an activity with pleasure caused by dopamine, the brain teaches us to do it over and over again. Unfortunately, it is also the chemical responsible for the euphoric effects felt by people who abuse drugs which also contributes to their addiction.

What Are the Short-Term Effects of Opioid Use?

The short-term effects include drowsiness, confusion, nausea, constipation, euphoria, sleepiness, vomiting, clouded thinking, respiratory problems, gradual overdose, and sexual dysfunction.

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Opioid Use?

Long-term use of prescription opioids even without abuse can cause some people to develop opioid addiction. This means that their body has adapted to the drug as normally present in the body and therefore, it can only function normally with it.

What Are the Most Dangerous Side Effects of Opioid Use Disorder?

Slowed breathing can be very dangerous as it can lead to hypoxia, which is a condition that happens when an insufficient amount of oxygen reaches the brain. It can lead to serious risks of coma, permanent brain damage, or death.

Patients that are taking these drugs can also develop opioid use disorder. This means that more of the drug must be taken to achieve the same desired effect compared to when it was first taken. This can lead to addiction and other several long-term effects. Withdrawal symptoms can also manifest once you suddenly stop taking opioids.

Drug overdose can also take place when opioids are mixed with other substances. If you mix an opioid drug like oxycodone with alcohol or benzodiazepines, it can lead to an overdose which can be fatal. Fake drugs like fake oxycodone or fake Xanax can also be fatal when mixed with the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Opioid Epidemic in the United States

The United States is currently facing an ongoing opioid epidemic. Statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse have shown that an increasing amount of people die each day from an accidental drug overdose caused by opioid misuse.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse also reports that more than 2 million Americans abuse them. This opioid misuse has resulted in more than 100 overdose deaths every day. Also, the number of deaths among children and teens has nearly tripled between 1999 and 2016 because of prescription opioids.

This has led to calls from some medical groups that urge the medical community to cut back on prescribing these drugs to curb the opioid epidemic and avoid more overdose deaths. They reasoned that over-prescribing is leading to opioid abuse.

Drug Overdose Deaths in the United States

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drug overdose deaths in the US from April 2020 to 2021 saw an increase of about 28.5% from the previous year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that was also published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated over 100,000 drug overdose deaths in that period.

Opioid Addiction

Do Opioids Have Adverse Interactions with Other Substances?

If these drugs are taken in large doses, or combined with tranquilizers or alcohol, it can cause deadly overdoses that cause breathing to stop.

Patients that are taking these drugs must be very careful to take them only as prescribed by a pain management specialist. They must also be very careful in combining them with other medications unless their doctors tell them specifically to do so.

How Can You Treat Opioid Overdose and Addiction?

Overdosing on opioids can be fatal. If you suspect that someone has overdosed, you must seek emergency medical help immediately and call 911. Naloxone can also be administered if you have it around, as this can temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

You should also seek professional help if you or someone you know is addicted to opioids. Prevention is key when it comes to opioid addiction, so getting help early on before the situation gets worse is important.