There is a lot of discussion in the news regarding opioids and the rising rates of opioid addiction. This may leave you wondering, what is an opioid?  The Oxford Dictionary defines opioid as “a compound resembling opium in addictive properties or physiological effects.”

In simpler terms, opioids are man-made drugs that are chemically similar to opiates which are naturally derived from the Opium poppy plant. While they are different in origin, they act very similarly on the brain and body. It is not uncommon to see the words opioid and opiate used interchangeably.

Why do doctors prescribe opioids?

Opioids are effective pain relievers when used as prescribed, for short periods of time. Unfortunately the euphoric feeling they can produce has made them a popular target for abuse. Regular use of opioids or opiates, even when used as prescribed, can lead to addiction. When misused, opioids can lead to overdose and death. All opiates have side effects which can create additional medical problems as well.

Which drugs are considered opioids?

These substances are all either naturally derived opiates or synthetically manufactured opioids. Some of these substances are opioids mixed with other analgesics such as Acetaminophen, which enhances pain relief and is generally considered safe but carries its own risks if too much is taken.

Common injectable opioids

These drugs are typically injected but may also be smoked or snorted. These are the strongest, and most dangerous, opiates and opioids.

Morphine – is a naturally derived opiate used to treat severe pain including cancer. Morphine was the first substance derived from the opium poppy plant in December 1804. Its deadly potential was known immediately. Despite its high risk, morphine was originally, and sadly mistakenly, marketed as a treatment for opium and alcohol addiction in addition to its use as a pain reliever.

Heroin – is illegally made and highly addictive. It is not available by prescription. Since all heroin is manufactured and sold illegally, strength and contamination is unknown making this an extremely high risk substance to use. Originally and falsely marketed as less addictive than morphine, in truth heroin is more potent and up to twice as addictive as morphine.

Fentanyl® – is a synthetic opiate used to relieve severe pain. It is the most powerful, legally prescribed opioid. However, illegally made fentanyl is increasingly common. Regardless of how it is made, it is easy to overdose on fentanyl and death by fentanyl is increasing. Fentanyl is about 75 times stronger than morphine for a given amount.

Opioids in tablet or pill form

These drugs are prescribed to deal with moderate to severe pain. All can have serious risks and side effects. Common side effects of opioid use can include an increased sensitivity to pain, constipation, nausea or vomiting, sleepiness and dizziness, itching and sweating, confusion, and depression. Many of these substances include Acetaminophen. Exceeding prescribed dosages of drugs containing acetaminophen add the risk of liver damage to the already dangerous risks of abuse.

Commonly prescribed opiods include Oxycodone (OxyContin®), Hydrocodone (Vicodin®, Lortab®), Codeine, Percodan® and Percocet®, and Dilaudid®.  Other common opioids include: Fiorional® with Codeine, Robitussin A-C®, Tylenol® with Codeine, Empirin® with Codeine, Roxanol®, Duramorph®, Demerol®, Actiq®, Duragesic®, Sublimaze®, and Tylox®.

How opioid addiction develops

Continued use can lead to a higher tolerance. This means the patient needs an increasing dose to achieve the same pain relief or euphoric effect. This means you can suffer symptoms of withdrawal when the medication is stopped. A higher tolerance increases the risk of addiction and can lead to an overdose. You may need medical support to end use of any of these substances.


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