What are opioids used to treat?
Opioids, also called narcotics, are a class of drugs that bind to opioid receptors in the body. This action can help diminish feelings of pain in the body and can increase pleasurable sensations. Prescription opioids are used to treat moderate to severe pain. Some opioids may also be used to treat cough or diarrhea.
Opioids can cause a euphoric or "high" sensation and some people abuse them for recreation. Opioids are highly addictive and abuse can lead to overdose and death.
Some commonly prescribed opioids include …
- oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)
- hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab)
- morphine (Avinza, Kadian)
- hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
- oxymorphone (Opana)
- meperidine (Demerol)
- fentanyl (Sublimaze, Actiq)
- methadone (Methadose, Diskets, Dolophine)
- tramadol (Ultram, ConZip)
The illegal street drug heroin is also an opioid.
Opioid dependence is the same as opioid addiction.
Taking opioids for prolonged periods of time can result in dependence, which means that when people stop taking the drug they have withdrawal symptoms (such as anxiety, muscle cramping, and diarrhea).
Dependence is not the same as addiction. Anyone who takes opioids for prolonged periods of time will become physically dependent on the drugs but only a small percentage of those people will become addicted. Addiction is a chronic brain disease characterized by uncontrollable cravings, with compulsive drug use, an inability to control use, and continuing to use despite harm to the self or others.
What are risk factors for opioid addiction?
Continued abuse of opioids changes the brain's chemistry and can lead to addiction, which is characterized by uncontrollable cravings for the drugs and a compulsive need to use them despite harm to their health, their job, or their family. But not everyone who is dependent on opioids becomes addicted. Risk factors for addiction include:
- Genetic predisposition
- Psychological factors (such as stress, depression, anxiety)
- Personality traits (such as impulsiveness)
- Psychiatric disorders
- Abuse (physical, sexual, emotional)
- Substance abuse by family or friends
- Drinking, smoking, or other drug use at a young age
Only street drugs such as heroin can be abused.
Just because a drug is prescribed does not mean it cannot be abused. Prescription opioids may be abused when a medication is taken…
- in a dose other than it was prescribed
- in a way other than it was prescribed (for example, crushed or snorted, rather than as a pill)
- that was prescribed for someone else
- just to get high
What are symptoms of opioid abuse?
Symptoms and side effects of opioid abuse include:
- Dry mouth
- Abdominal cramps
- Slowed or shallow breathing
- Skin rashes
- Weight gain
- Menstrual problems
- Bad dreams
- Decreased sex drive
- Sexual dysfunction
- Mood swings
- Slurred speech
- Loss of appetite
- Trouble sleeping
What are signs of opioid withdrawal?
When a person takes opioids for prolonged periods of time, the body comes to depend on the drugs and stopping them can cause unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as:
- Sleep problems
- Muscle aches and spasms
- Goose bumps
- Involuntary leg movements
- Rapid heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Runny nose
- Tremors (shaking)
- Flu-like symptoms
What is the treatment for opioid dependence?
When a person becomes dependent on opioids, they can experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking the drugs. Although the symptoms can be unpleasant, withdrawal is rarely life threatening. Medications can help manage withdrawal and reduce symptoms.
Treating opioid addiction is more complicated. Maintenance medication (including methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone) in combination with counseling and other support is recommended.
How many people in the U.S. have opioid use disorder?
Opioid use disorder is estimated to affect 2.1 million people in the U.S. Opioid use disorder is the misuse of prescribed opioid medications, using opioid medications for uses other than prescribed, or use of illegal heroin. It is usually a chronic and relapsing illness. Health consequences of opioid use disorder include high rates of accident-related injures, overdose, and death.
How many deaths are caused annually in the U.S. by opioid overdoses?
When a person becomes dependent on opioids there is the potential for abuse and overdose. There were more than 42,000 opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2016. An estimated 40% of those deaths involved a prescription opioid.
Images provided by:
National Institute on Drug Abuse. Prescription Opioids.
The National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment. Physical Dependence and Addiction.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. What are opioids? Hormone Therapy
National Institute on Drug Abuse. Effective Treatments for Opioid Addiction.
Center on Addiction. Who Develops Addiction?
The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Opioid Addiction.
American Society of Addiction Medicine. Opioid Addiction Treatment.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. What is the U.S. Opioid Epidemic?
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