Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, morphine, and many others.
All opioids are chemically related and interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain. Opioid pain relievers are generally safe when taken for a short time and as prescribed by a doctor, but because they produce euphoria in addition to pain relief, they can be misused. Regular use—even as prescribed by a doctor—can lead to dependence and, when misused, opioid pain relievers can lead to addiction, overdose incidents, and deaths.
What are prescription opioids?
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. 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. Popular slang terms for opioids include Oxy, Percs, and Vikes.
How do people misuse prescription opioids?
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
How do prescription opioids affect the brain?
Opioids bind to and activate opioid receptors on cells located in many areas of the brain, spinal cord, and other organs in the body, especially those involved in feelings of pain and pleasure. When opioids attach to these receptors, they block pain signals sent from the brain to the body and release large amounts of dopamine throughout the body. This release can strongly reinforce the act of taking the drug, making the user want to repeat the experience.
What are some possible effects of prescription opioids on the brain and body?
In the short term, opioids can relieve pain and make people feel relaxed and happy. However, opioids can also have harmful effects, including drowsiness, confusion, nausea, constipation, euphoria and slowed breathing
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.
Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.