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There are now many ways to address pain, including the use of pain medicines such as opiates. For around 70 years, opiates have been approved for pain relief, and they have been considered relatively safe.

Navigation: What are Opioids?, What Are Examples of Opioids and What Are They Used for?, Are Prescription Opioids Dangerous?, Opioid Overdose Symptoms, What to Do in Case of a Suspected Opioid Overdose, How to Prevent Opioid Overdose, Opioid Use Disorder: What is it?, Treatment for Prescription Opioid Addiction, Rehab Is Your Best Chance


One of the most common reasons people seek medical care is because of pain. There are now many ways to address pain, including the use of pain medicines such as opiates. For around 70 years, opiates have been approved for pain relief, and they have been considered relatively safe.

However, the last two decades have shown that these drugs are not immune to drug abuse and misuse, raising concern about their safety. In fact, the US is facing an opioid epidemic that has led to numerous overdose deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported tens of thousands of opioid overdose deaths annually, with opioids accounting for a significant portion of all drug overdose deaths.

Efforts to address this crisis included expanding access to opioid overdose reversal medications like naloxone, increasing public awareness, and enhancing treatment options for individuals struggling with opioid use disorders. Health care providers are also being encouraged to improve prescribing practices to limit the number of people who are exposed to opioids.

But what are opioids anyway? Before we can talk about opioid overdose and its effects, let’s take a look at this specific class of drugs.


What are Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs that include both prescription pain relievers and illegal drugs such as heroin.

These substances are derived from the opium poppy plant or synthetically produced to mimic the effects of natural opioids. Opioids work by binding to specific receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and other parts of the body called opioid receptors. When these receptors are activated, they can block pain signals from reaching the brain. This is why opioids are often prescribed to manage severe pain, such as after surgery or in cases of chronic pain. However, this process also produces a euphoric high that is enjoyable for the user.

So while opioids are known for their powerful pain-relieving properties, they also have a high potential for abuse and can lead to addiction.

Due to their pleasurable effects, opioids carry a significant risk of misuse and addiction. Regular use can lead to tolerance, where higher doses are needed to achieve the same level of pain relief or euphoria. If you misuse opioids for a significant period of time, you can eventually develop physical dependence, where stopping or reducing the drug leads to withdrawal symptoms. Opioid withdrawal symptoms tend to be extremely uncomfortable.


What Are Examples of Opioids and What Are They Used for?

Common prescription opioids include oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and codeine. On the other hand, illicit opioids include heroin, fentanyl, and carfentanil.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the most common examples of opioid drugs:

Oxycodone: Oxycodone is often prescribed under brand names like OxyContin or Percocet. It is a powerful prescription opioid medication that is primarily used to manage moderate to severe pain. Oxycodone is often prescribed after surgeries, injuries, or for chronic pain conditions where other less potent pain medications are not effective. It can be found in various forms, including immediate-release tablets, extended-release tablets, and liquid solutions. The extended-release formulations are designed to provide pain relief over a longer period of time, often up to 12 hours.

Hydrocodone: Hydrocodone is typically combined with other non-opioid pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen, to enhance its pain-relieving effects. Common brand names for hydrocodone-containing medications include Vicodin, Norco, and Lortab.

Morphine: Morphine is a potent opioid analgesic that is often used in hospital settings to manage severe pain. However, morphine is a controlled substance due to its potential for abuse and addiction. It can cause various side effects, including drowsiness, nausea, constipation, respiratory depression (slowed breathing), and euphoria. Due to these risks, morphine is usually prescribed and administered under careful medical supervision, and its use is closely monitored.

Codeine: Codeine is often prescribed for mild to moderate pain, as well as for cough suppression. It’s frequently combined with other medications, such as acetaminophen (paracetamol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), to enhance its pain-relieving effects. Additionally, codeine can be found in some over-the-counter cough syrups and cold medications, although regulations and availability can vary by region.

Heroin: Heroin is a highly addictive and illegal opioid drug synthesized from morphine. It is typically found as a white or brown powder, but it can also appear as a black sticky substance known as “black tar” heroin. It can be ingested through various methods, including injection, smoking, or snorting. When ingested, heroin quickly crosses the blood-brain barrier and is converted back into morphine, leading to intense feelings of euphoria, pain relief, and relaxation.

Fentanyl: Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid medication that is commonly used for pain management, especially for severe pain such as that experienced by patients undergoing surgery or dealing with chronic pain conditions like cancer-related pain. It’s one of the strongest opioids available for medical use, with a potency significantly higher than morphine. In recent years, fentanyl has gained notoriety as a recreational drug due to its strong effects.

Carfentanil: Carfentanil is an extremely potent synthetic opioid drug that is classified as a fentanyl analog. It is considered one of the most potent opioids known, with a potency estimated to be around 10,000 times that of morphine and about 100 times more potent than fentanyl itself. Carfentanil was originally developed for veterinary use as a tranquilizer for large animals, such as elephants and other large mammals. It is not meant for human use but has been found in the illicit drug supply.

While their exact uses may vary depending on the substance, opioids are generally used for pain relief, especially for patients struggling with acute pain, cancer pain, postoperative pain, and chronic pain.

It’s important to note that while opioids can be highly effective in managing pain, they also carry significant risks.

Misuse, dependence, and addiction are serious concerns associated with these medications. Doctors need to carefully assess the potential benefits and risks before prescribing opioids. Ideally, they should also monitor patients closely when they are prescribed opioids.

In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on finding alternative pain management strategies and reducing the reliance on opioids to minimize the risk of addiction and overdose.

Are Prescription Opioids Dangerous?

Opioids can be beneficial when taken and used as prescribed by a doctor. However, if misused or abused, they can be dangerous. For example, if you combine opioids with another substance like alcohol to experience more intense effects, you may suffer from an overdose. Keep in mind that some of these substances are potent enough to cause an overdose on their own. Combining them with other substances only increases the risk of a fatal overdose.

Opioids have a high potential for addiction. Even when taken as prescribed, some individuals can become dependent on them. Misuse or overuse can lead to addiction, causing individuals to seek out the drug even when it’s no longer medically necessary.

With prolonged use, the body can develop tolerance to opioids. This means that over time, individuals may need higher doses to achieve the same level of pain relief. However, higher doses also increase the risk of overdose.

There’s a common misconception that these drugs are safe to abuse because they are prescribed by a doctor. But these medications can be just as addictive if misused.

Some people who misuse their prescription opioids may even transition to using illegal opioids like heroin because it can be cheaper and more accessible. Heroin carries similar risks and dangers as prescription opioids.

Opioid use can lead to a range of health issues, including constipation, respiratory depression, nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, impaired judgment, and cognitive changes. Long-term opioid use can also impact a person’s mental health and well-being.

But by far the most dangerous effect of opioid abuse is drug overdose. These drugs can depress the central nervous system, leading to slowed breathing and heart rate. Taking too much or combining opioids with other substances, such as alcohol or sedatives, increases the risk of overdose, which can be fatal.

If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid misuse or addiction, seeking help from medical professionals, addiction specialists, or support groups is crucial. Proper substance abuse treatment could save a life.

Opioid Overdose Symptoms

An opioid overdose can be dangerous, so recognizing its signs and symptoms can help save a life. Remember that this is a life-threatening situation that requires immediate emergency attention.

An overdose occurs when a person takes an excessive amount of opioids, leading to suppressed respiratory function and other dangerous effects. Call 911 immediately if someone exhibits any of the following symptoms after taking opioids: slow or shallow breathing, choking, vomiting, and making gurgling noises.

Some individuals may vomit or make gurgling sounds due to reduced muscle control, which can lead to the inhalation of stomach contents into the lungs.

Their face may become extremely pale. Their skin may turn blue, damp, clammy, or cold to the touch. Similarly, their fingernails or lips may turn blue or purple. This is due to inadequate oxygen supply. Their body may also go limp as muscle tone decreases.

Some people going through an opioid overdose lose their consciousness or become unable to speak. You may find that they cannot be awakened or that their heartbeat has stopped completely. The person might be completely unresponsive to stimuli, including loud noises or being shaken.

The person’s pupils (the black part in the center of the eye) might become very small, resembling the head of a pin. If you see any of these signs, seek medical care immediately.

What to Do in Case of a Suspected Opioid Overdose

If you suspect someone is experiencing an opioid overdose, it’s important to act quickly. Opioid overdoses can be life-threatening, but there are steps you can take to help save a person’s life. Here’s what you should do:

First, call for emergency medical help. Call 911, provide your location and a description of the situation. Time is critical in overdose situations, so don’t delay.

If available, administer Naloxone (Narcan). Naloxone is a medication that can rapidly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. If you have access to naloxone, administer it according to the instructions. Many states have made naloxone available without a prescription, and it’s important to know how to use it properly.

Keep the person awake and responsive if possible. Encourage them to stay awake and continue breathing. If the person is unconscious, lay them on their side to prevent choking in case they vomit. Stay with them and monitor their breathing and pulse.

If they are not breathing or if they are breathing very slowly, perform rescue breathing by giving them mouth-to-mouth breaths. Administer one breath every 5-6 seconds. You can also perform chest compressions if you’re trained in CPR.

It’s important to remain calm and composed during this emergency. Your actions can make a significant difference in the outcome.

Remember that opioid overdoses can be fatal, so it’s crucial to seek medical help immediately. Additionally, if you’re in an area with a high prevalence of opioid use, it’s a good idea to educate yourself on how to respond to an overdose and to carry naloxone if possible.

How to Prevent Opioid Overdose

Knowing what to do in case of an emergency is important, but prevention is still better than cure. If you or someone you love is taking opioids for their pain, you need to help them avoid the possibility of an overdose. Here are some steps that might help prevent opioid overdose:

Follow Prescribed Dosages: If you have been prescribed opioids by a medical professional, take them exactly as directed. Do not increase the dosage or take them more frequently without consulting your doctor.

Communicate with Healthcare Provider: Make sure your healthcare provider knows about all the medications you’re taking, including prescription opioids, over-the-counter drugs, and supplements. This can help prevent potentially harmful interactions.

Avoid Mixing Substances: Opioids should not be mixed with alcohol, benzodiazepines, muscle relaxants, or other sedatives, as this combination can increase the risk of overdose.

Use Naloxone (Narcan): Naloxone is a medication that can rapidly reverse opioid overdose. It’s available in many areas without a prescription and can be used by bystanders to save a life. If you or someone you know is at risk of opioid overdose, having naloxone on hand could be life-saving.

Educate Yourself: Learn about the signs of opioid overdose, such as slow or shallow breathing, unresponsiveness, and pinpoint pupils. Being able to recognize these signs can help you respond quickly in case of an emergency.

Have a Support System: If you’re taking opioids for pain management, let friends, family, or caregivers know about your medication regimen. They can help monitor your usage and watch for any concerning signs.

Dispose of Unused Medication: Safely dispose of any unused opioid medication. Many pharmacies and healthcare facilities have drug take-back programs to prevent these drugs from being misused.

Seek Alternatives: Explore non-opioid pain management options for chronic pain, such as physical therapy, acupuncture, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and other alternative therapies.

Regular Check-ins: If you’re using opioids for pain management, regularly check in with your healthcare provider to reassess your treatment plan. They can help determine if adjustments are needed.

Consider Opioid-Free Periods: If you’re using opioids for a prolonged period, talk to your healthcare provider about gradually tapering off the medication or taking breaks from it. This can reduce the risk of developing tolerance and dependence.

The best way to prevent opioid overdose is to work closely with a qualified healthcare provider. They can provide personalized advice based on your medical history and circumstances. If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid use, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.

Opioid Use Disorder: What is it?

Opioid addiction, also known as opioid use disorder (OUD), is a chronic and relapsing medical condition characterized by a compulsive and uncontrollable urge to use opioids, despite harmful consequences. Just like with other drugs, a person who is addicted to opioids will keep taking the substance even when they are already suffering from its effects. Addiction refers to this compulsive need for the addictive substance despite the physical and mental health effects.

Prolonged opioid use can also lead to physical dependence, where the body adapts to the presence of opioids and experiences withdrawal symptoms if the drug is suddenly discontinued.

Opioid addiction involves both physical and psychological components. People with opioid addiction often find it extremely difficult to control their drug use, leading to a range of negative consequences in their personal, social, and professional lives. These consequences might include health problems, strained relationships, financial difficulties, and legal issues.

Treatment for opioid addiction usually involves a combination of behavioral therapies, counseling, support groups, and, in some cases, medications. Medications like methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone can help manage cravings and withdrawal symptoms, allowing individuals to focus on recovery and rebuilding their lives.

@rehabnearme Opioids: A Comprehensive Look. For over 20 years, Dr. Andrew Saxon and Dr. RIchard Ries have worked with patients and families affected by opioid use. In this interview they discuss the how and why opioid dependence happens, and ways to overcome the US' biggest drug problem. Call tel:+855 339 1112 for addiction treatment help and information. #opioid #opioidawareness #opioiduse #addiction #addictionrecovery #addictiontreatment #addictiontreatmentcenters #rehabnearme #rehab #fyp #latest #trending #addictionvideo ♬ original sound - RehabNear.Me

Treatment for Prescription Opioid Addiction

Despite the fact that opioid addiction is a complex medical condition, it can be treated through a combination of medications and behavioral therapies. Medical detox typically addresses the physical effects of substance abuse, while behavioral therapy addresses the root causes of addictive behavior.

Effective treatment approaches for opioid use disorder address both the physical and psychological aspects of the addiction.

Medication-Assisted Treatment or MAT involves the use of medications to help reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms associated with opioid addiction. The three main medications used for MAT are methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone. These are opioid agonists and antagonists that can block the effects of opioids, reduce cravings, and minimize withdrawal symptoms. They are typically prescribed by qualified healthcare providers in various settings, including outpatient clinics.

Various behavioral therapies are used to help individuals change their attitudes and behaviors related to drug use. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Contingency Management, Motivational Interviewing, and Supportive Therapy are some common examples of therapies used in opioid addiction treatment.

Individual counseling or psychotherapy can help individuals address underlying emotional issues and develop healthy coping mechanisms to prevent relapse.

Additionally, participating in support groups, such as 12-step programs like Narcotics Anonymous (NA) or group therapy sessions, can provide a sense of community and shared experiences that aid in recovery.

Another essential aspect of opioid treatment is aftercare. Planning for aftercare is essential for relapse prevention so that the patient can maintain sobriety even after leaving rehab. Aftercare might include ongoing therapy, support group participation, and access to medical care.

It’s important to note that treatment approaches should be tailored to the individual’s needs and preferences. Some people might respond better to certain medications or therapies, and a comprehensive treatment plan should consider these factors.

Additionally, seeking professional help from healthcare providers who specialize in addiction treatment is highly recommended. If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid addiction, reaching out to a healthcare professional or addiction treatment center is the first step toward recovery. Look for a rehab center near you today to learn more.

Rehab is Your Best Chance

Treatment is an addicted individualʼs best option if they want to recover. Beating an addiction not only requires eliminating the physical dependence, but also addressing the behavioral factors that prevent them from wanting to get better. Simply quitting may not change the psychological aspect of addiction. Some people quit for a while, and then take drugs or alcohol again, only to overdose because they did not detox properly. Recovery involves changing the way the patient feels, thinks, and behaves.



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Fel Clinical Director of Content
Felisa Laboro has been working with addiction and substance abuse businesses since early 2014. She has authored and published over 1,000 articles in the space. As a result of her work, over 1,500 people have been able to find treatment. She is passionate about helping people break free from alcohol or drug addiction and living a healthy life.

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