What Are Opioids?
Opioids are naturally found in the opium poppy plant. Some opioid medications are made from this plant while others are made by scientists in labs. Opioids have been used for hundreds of years to treat pain, cough, and diarrhea.
You may have heard people talking about opioids and not even realized it. Oxy, Percs, and Vikes are all slang terms for opioid pills.
What Are the Most Commonly Used Opioids?
The most commonly used prescription opioids are oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, and morphine. Heroin is an opioid, but it is not a medication. Fentanyl is a powerful prescription pain reliever, but it is sometimes added to heroin by drug dealers, causing doses so strong that people are dying from overdoses.
How Do Opioids Work?
Your brain is full of molecules called receptors that receive signals from other parts of the body. Opioids attach to receptors on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, and other organs. This allows them to block pain messages sent from the body to the brain, which is why they are prescribed for serious injuries or illnesses.
When the opioids attach to the receptors, they also cause a large amount of dopamine to be released in the pleasure centers of the brain. Dopamine is the chemical responsible for making us feel reward and motivates our actions. The dopamine release caused by the opioids sends a rush of extreme pleasure and well-being throughout the body.
What Are the Health Effects of Opioids on the Brain and Body?
In the short term, the release of dopamine into your body can make some people feel really relaxed and happy. But it can also cause more harmful effects, like extreme sleepiness, confusion, nausea, vomiting, and constipation. Over time, opioids can lead to insomnia, muscle pain, heart infections, pneumonia, and addiction.
What Is Prescription Opioid Misuse?
- Taking your prescription in ways other than instructed, like taking more than your prescribed dose or taking it more often
- Getting and using prescription pills from a friend or family member, even if it's for a real medical condition
- Taking prescription drugs to get high
- Mixing prescription opioids with alcohol or other drugs
I Have an Opioid Prescription From My Doctor; So, They Can't Be That Bad, Can They?
Prescription opioids are used to treat severe pain. People who have major surgeries including dental work, serious sports injuries, or cancer are sometimes prescribed these pills to manage their pain. When taken as prescribed, opioids are relatively safe and can reduce pain in the short term. But if a person misuses the drug and doesn't take them as prescribed, opioids can have dangerous consequences.
Is It Safe to Take My Friend's Prescription Opioids?
Taking someone else's prescription medicine, even if you are in real pain, can be dangerous. Before prescribing opioids, doctors consider a lot of different factors, including the patient's weight, other medical conditions, and potential interactions with other medications they might be taking. Without talking to a doctor, you won't know how the opioids will affect you or what dose you should take. You should never share prescription opioids and only use them when prescribed to you by a doctor.
Do Opioids Show Up on Drug Tests?
Just like other drugs, opioids can show up on a drug test within hours of being taken. Opioids, including heroin, can show up on a drug test for days, and in some cases weeks, after being taken. How long they stay in your system depends on how long a person has been taking the drug, the amount of drug they use, or the person's metabolism (how your body handles the drug).
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Is It Safe to Take Opioids if You Are Pregnant?
Opioid use during pregnancy -- even if taken as a doctor instructed -- can lead to miscarriage or low birth weight. It can also cause neonatal abstinence syndrome, a medical condition where the baby is born dependent on opioids and has withdrawal symptoms after being born. If a pregnant woman tries to stop taking opioids suddenly without medical help, she can put the baby at risk. It is important for the mother to tell her doctor about all drugs she is taking or planning to take so that the baby has a greater chance of being born healthy. There are treatments that can help.
I Have Heard About Something Called Fentanyl. What Is That?
Fentanyl is an opioid drug that is 50 times more powerful than heroin. Medically, it is used to treat extreme pain and for surgeries. But now it's being made illegally and is sometimes mixed with other drugs, leading to overdose.
Are Opioids Addictive?
Yes. Over time, opioid use can change the brain, leading to addiction. Addiction means a person continues to use a drug despite negative consequences, and actively tries to get more and more of the drug. Many people get addicted to opioids, leading to deadly overdoses -- taking enough to make you stop breathing.
However, many people who take prescription opioids for pain become dependent, not addicted. Dependence means your body has gotten used to the drug, and it will hurt and feel uncomfortable if you suddenly stop. Patients using prescription opioids should ask their doctors how to safely stop using them.
A person can be dependent on a drug without being addicted. But sometimes dependence can lead to addiction, if you don't make an effort to stop taking them.
Can Opioid Addiction Be Treated?
Quitting opioids can be hard, but it is possible. There are three FDA-approved medicines to treat opioid addiction. Medicines like buprenorphine and methadone bind to the same receptors in the brain as prescription opioids to reduce cravings. Naltrexone is another medication that treats opioid addiction by preventing opioids from having an effect on the brain. Additionally, a medicine named lofexidine was recently approved to help lessen withdrawal symptoms for people who are trying to stop using opioids.
Counseling and therapy are also important to help people stop using opioids, rebuild relationships with friends and family, and build healthy life skills. A combination of behavioral therapy and medication has proven to be very effective in treating opioid addiction.
Doctors develop treatment plans to fit the unique needs of the patient.
Do Opioids Produce Withdrawal Symptoms When Someone Tries to Quit Using Them?
Yes. The brain gets so used to the opioids that when someone stops taking them, they can go into withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms include sweating, shaking, vomiting, sleep problems, and diarrhea. The symptoms can be so severe that it can be hard for someone to stop using opioids, even if they want to. This is why it can take several tries to stop drug use.
Can You Overdose on Opioids?
Yes, you can. In fact, overdose deaths have almost tripled in the last 15 years and the majority of these deaths involve opioids. One of the ways opioids work to relax your body is by slowing down your breathing. When misused, opioids can slow your breathing too much. This can cause you to stop breathing entirely and lead to an overdose. For some people, just one dose is enough to make them stop breathing.
Can You Stop an Opioid Overdose?
Yes, if you act quickly. If you think a friend or family member has overdosed on opioids, call 911 so they can receive immediate medical attention. When paramedics arrive, they will likely give the person naloxone. Naloxone works to quickly block the effects of opioids. It is available as an injectable solution, an auto-injector, and a nasal spray.
Some states require a doctor to prescribe naloxone, but other states allow pharmacies to sell naloxone without a personal prescription. This lets friends and family members use it to save someone who is overdosing. But naloxone doesn't take the place of medical care, and after using it, the person who overdosed should immediately get medical help.
What Is Being Done to Stop the Overdose Crisis?
Opioid misuse has become a nationwide public health crisis. Luckily, federal, state, and local governments, advocacy organizations, and health professionals are working together to tackle the crisis from every angle. A holistic public health approach is being undertaken to:
- Improve access to treatment and recovery services
- Promote the use of overdose-reversing drugs
- Strengthen our understanding of the crisis through better public health monitoring
- Develop safe, effective medications strategies for pain management
- Improve medications to treat people who are addicted to opioids
- Advance better pain management practices
Opioid Overdose Deaths
The increase in opioid overdose deaths has resulted in a national crisis. After marijuana, prescription drugs are the most commonly misused drugs in the country. Every day, 115 Americans die from an opioid overdose. In 2016, the number of opioid overdose deaths, including prescription medicines and heroin, was 5 times higher than it was in 1999. This caused the government to declare a public health emergency. People in every community in every state have been affected by this crisis.
Opioid misuse can cause brain damage. When opioids are taken as prescribed by a medical professional, they are relatively safe and can reduce pain effectively. However, opioid misuse can cause harmful medical effects like slowed breathing. Slowed breathing can lead to short- and long-term health effects, including coma, brain damage, and death. Studies have shown that repeated opioid misuse can affect decision-making, behavior control, and responses to stressful situations. It is unknown if the damage can be reversed.
Opioid use can affect every area of your life. Using drugs, especially early in life, can lead to poor grades, worse performance in sports, and bad relationships with friends and family. Opioids also alter judgment which can cause you to do risky things you wouldn't ordinarily do, like having unprotected sex or getting into a car crash because you drove while under the influence of opioids.
Opioid misuse can cause addiction. Opioids are among the most addictive drugs. When addiction occurs, the body feels a strong need for the opioids. This is like when you are really hungry because you haven't eaten in a long time. This strong desire, together with a loss of control over the urges to take the drug, is why some people continue to use opioids despite negative consequences.
United States. National Institutes of Health. National Institute on Drug Abuse. "FAQs About Opioids." July 2018. <https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/opioid-facts-teens/faqs-about-opioids>.