What Are Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant and that work in the brain to produce a variety of effects, including the relief of pain with many of these drugs.

Opioids can be prescription medications often referred to as painkillers, or they can be so-called street drugs, such as heroin.

Many prescription opioids are used to block pain signals between the brain and the body and are typically prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain. In addition to controlling pain, opioids can make some people feel relaxed, happy or “high,” and can be addictive. Additional side effects can include slowed breathing, constipation, nausea, confusion and drowsiness.

Opioids by Name

Opioids are sometimes referred to as narcotics and although they do relieve pain, they do not fall into the same category as over-the-counter painkillers such as aspirin and Tylenol. 

The most commonly used opioids are:

  • prescription opioids, such as OxyContin and Vicodin

  • fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50–100 times more potent than morphine

  • heroin, an illegal drug

Signs of Opioid Abuse

How can you tell if you or a loved one is struggling with opioid abuse?

Opioids are a class of drug that includes both prescription pain medicines and illegal drugs such as heroin. Though opioids can be prescribed by a doctor to treat pain, their misuse may lead to a dependency or addiction (what is known in medicine as an “opioid use disorder”). Anyone prescribed an opioid should follow their doctor’s orders carefully, making sure to only take the medication as prescribed.

Opioid use disorder is a medical condition defined by not being able to abstain from using opioids, and behaviors centered around opioid use that interfere with daily life. Being physically dependent on an opioid can occur when someone has an opioid use disorder, and is characterized by withdrawal symptoms such as cravings and sweating. However, people can misuse opioids and not have physical dependence. When a person has physical dependence, it can be particularly hard to stop taking opioids, and that dependence can interfere with daily routines, including personal relationships or finances.

Opioid use disorder may be diagnosed by a doctor. Someone struggling with opioid use disorder may not display symptoms right away. However, over time, there may be some signs that they need help.

Common Signs of Opioid Addiction

  • The inability to control opioid use

  • Uncontrollable cravings

  • Drowsiness

  • Changes in sleep habits

  • Weight loss

  • Frequent flu-like symptoms

  • Decreased libido

  • Lack of hygiene

  • Changes in exercise habits

  • Isolation from family or friends

  • Stealing from family, friends or businesses

  • New financial difficulties

Treatment for opioid use disorder is available from medical professionals. Medications such as methadone, buprenorphine or naltrexone paired with support programs can help people recover.

How to Encourage Someone to Seek Help

With substance abuse, when patients are ready to deal with their issues they need an open door and help immediately. The person with an addictive disorder should want to participate in treatment. Navigating that change can be challenging for friends and family members.

 

How successful is opioid treatment?

The success of therapy for substance use disorder varies by patient and by severity of the disorder, and also can be influenced by complications of comorbidities, such as alcohol use or mental illness. Research has shown that there is a higher rate of substance use in patients with diagnoses such as depression and those who use other substances such as alcohol.

Integrated treatment for both mental health and substance use disorders are needed in cases where these occur together. The environment and family or friend relationships can also play an important role. Some patients will repeat therapy and relapse many times before having success.

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