What are Opioid Drugs?
Opioids are a class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant. Some prescription opioids are made from the plant directly, and others are made by scientists in labs using the same chemical structure. Opioids are often used as medicines because they contain chemicals that relax the body and can relieve pain. Prescription opioids are used mostly to treat moderate to severe pain, though some opioids can be used to treat coughing and diarrhea. Opioids can also make people feel very relaxed and “high” – which is why they are sometimes used for non-medical reasons. This can be dangerous because opioids can be highly addictive, and overdoses and death are common. Heroin is one of the world’s most dangerous opioids, and is never used as a medicine in the United States.
Form and Dose
Prescription opioids used for pain relief are generally safe when taken for a short time and as prescribed by a doctor, but they can be misused. People misuse prescription opioids by:
- taking the medicine in a way or dose other than prescribed
- taking someone else’s prescription medicine
- taking the medicine for the effect it causes-to get high
When misusing a prescription opioid, a person can swallow the medicine in its normal form. Sometimes people crush pills or open capsules, dissolve the powder in water, and inject the liquid into a vein. Some also snort the powder.
These opioids have street names of Hillbilly heroin, oxy, OC, oxycotton, percs, happy pills, or vikes:
- Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percodan, Percocet)
- Propoxyphene (Darvon)
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
- Meperidine (Demerol)
- Diphenoxylate (Lomotil)
- Morphine (Kadian, Avinza, MS Contin)
- Fentanyl (Duragesic)
Short Term Effects
The short-term effects of opioids include drowsiness, constipation and depending on the dose, depressed respiration (slowed, shallow breathing).
Long Term Effects
The long-term effects of prescription opioids, if taken in too high of a dose, include severe respiratory depression or even death. Opioid misuse can cause slowed breathing, which can cause hypoxia, a condition that results when too little oxygen reaches the brain. Hypoxia can have short- and long-term psychological and neurological effects, including coma, permanent brain damage, or death.
If opioids are used with alcohol, the effects could be life-threatening, because alcohol also causes central nervous system depression.
Opioid prescription medications have been shown to be physically and psychologically addictive, especially when misused. Studies have shown that those who experience opioid addiction sometimes transition into heroin use and addiction, as the substances are chemically similar.
People addicted to an opioid medication who stop using the drug can have severe withdrawal symptoms that begin as early as a few hours after the drug was last taken. These symptoms include:
- muscle and bone pain
- sleep problems
- diarrhea and vomiting
- cold flashes with goose bumps
- uncontrollable leg movements
- severe cravings
These symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable and are the reason many people find it so difficult to stop using opioids. There are medicines being developed to help with the withdrawal process.
If you suspect someone has overdosed, the most important step to take is to call 911 so he or she can receive immediate medical attention. Once medical personnel arrive, they will administer naloxone. Naloxone is a medicine that can treat an opioid overdose when given right away. It works by rapidly binding to opioid receptors and blocking the effects of opioid drugs. Naloxone is available as an injectable (needle) solution and nasal sprays (NARCAN® Nasal Spray and KLOXXADO®).
Some states have passed laws that allow pharmacists to dispense naloxone without a personal prescription. Friends, family, and others in the community can use the nasal spray versions of naloxone to save someone who is overdosing.