Prescription opioids and heroin are chemically similar and can produce a similar high. In some places, heroin is cheaper and easier to get than prescription opioids, so some people switch to using heroin instead. Nearly 80 percent of Americans using heroin (including those in treatment) reported misusing prescription opioids prior to using heroin.
However, while prescription opioid misuse is a risk factor for starting heroin use, only a small fraction of people who misuse pain relievers switch to heroin. This suggests that prescription opioid misuse is just one factor leading to heroin use.
Tolerance vs. Dependence vs. Addiction
Long-term use of prescription opioids, even as prescribed by a doctor, can cause some people to develop a tolerance, which means that they need higher and/or more frequent doses of the drug to get the desired effects.
Drug dependence occurs with repeated use, causing the neurons to adapt so they only function normally in the presence of the drug. The absence of the drug causes several physiological reactions, ranging from mild in the case of caffeine, to potentially life threatening, such as with heroin. Some chronic pain patients are dependent on opioids and require medical support to stop taking the drug.
Drug addiction is a chronic disease characterized by compulsive, or uncontrollable, drug seeking and use despite harmful consequences and long-lasting changes in the brain. The changes can result in harmful behaviors by those who misuse drugs, whether prescription or illicit drugs.
Can a person overdose on prescription opioids?
Yes, a person can overdose on prescription opioids. An opioid overdose occurs when a person uses enough of the drug to produce life-threatening symptoms or death. When people overdose on an opioid medication, their breathing often slows or stops. This can decrease the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain, which can result in coma, permanent brain damage, or death.
How can an opioid overdose be treated?
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.
Can use of prescription opioids lead to addiction?
Yes, repeated misuse of prescription opioids can lead to a substance use disorder (SUD), a medical illness which ranges from mild to severe and from temporary to chronic. Addiction is the most severe form of an SUD. An SUD develops when continued misuse of the drug changes the brain and causes health problems and failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home.
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