The NIDA Blog Team

You may have heard about the dramatic rise in the misuse of opioid prescription pain relievers and opioid overdose deaths. Many people misusing prescription opioids get addicted to these drugs, and the consequences are sometimes fatal.

Opioids can slow down a person’s breathing; an overdose on prescription opioids can completely stop a person’s breathing. About 20,000 people die from this kind of prescription drug overdose every year in this country, and about 75 of them are teens.

This has become such a serious problem that the President has taken action to try and reduce it. So this is a good time to learn exactly what opioids are, why misusing them can be dangerous, and how you can avoid having a problem with them.

Your brain on opioids

A lot of different drugs are called opioids. As we mentioned, many of them are prescription medications used for pain relief (like after you have dental surgery), but heroin is also an opioid.

Opioid drugs bind to opioid receptors on cells in the brain and throughout the body. Some of those cells control a person’s digestion, pain, and other functions; your body already contains opioid chemicals, such as endorphins, which relieve pain and make you feel good during exercise. When opioid drugs attach to these receptors, they dull a person’s perception of pain even more. That’s why they can be so useful for people recovering from serious injuries or surgery.

But opioids also affect the brain’s reward (pleasure) system, which can make people feel euphoric (high). Some people take opioid medications just to feel that high. If you’re taking a prescription pain medicine to get high, you’re misusing it, and putting yourself at risk for addiction and other health problems.

The best way to avoid opioid addiction is to take opioid pain medications only as prescribed by a doctor, and only for as long as you need them.

The difference between prescription opioids and heroin

Even though heroin is an opioid, there’s a reason you can’t get a prescription for it. Because it’s injected or snorted, heroin enters the body and brain all at once and produces an extreme high that doesn’t last very long—so it isn’t much use for pain relief, but it is easy to get addicted to.

Many prescription opioids are designed to affect you more gradually, producing less extreme effects than heroin over a longer period of time. But sometimes people who want to get high on the drug crush opioid pills to snort or inject the powder, so they can get a more immediate, stronger effect. This is very dangerous, because of the risk for addiction and overdose.

Unfortunately, some people who misuse prescription pain relievers shift to using heroin because it’s cheaper and they can get it on the street instead of from someone’s prescription.

Treating opioid addiction

Researchers have developed medications to help people recover from opioid addiction. Methadone and buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex) both activate the opioid receptors just enough to prevent an opioid-addicted person from feeling withdrawal or cravings, but not enough for them to get high. This helps prevent relapse while their brain gradually heals. Naltrexone (Vivitrol) blocks opioid receptors and prevents the opioid from having its usual effects.

Combined with other support, like counseling, these medications can help people stop abusing opioids and get on with their lives.

Another medication, called naloxone, which also blocks opioids from affecting opioid receptors, can be used in emergencies to stop a person from dying of an overdose. It needs to be given quickly, which is why the Food and Drug Administration just approved an easy-to-use nasal spray version that can be given by a friend or family member.

Update: To learn more, read “What Does It Mean to ‘Misuse’ Opioids?,”  “Naloxone Saves Lives,” and “Should Schools Be Ready for Opioid Overdoses?

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.

Comments

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A VERY informative and helpful article. All too often there is misinformation and myth being spread about the 'differences' of opioids and this article has done A GREAT service to informing and educating!
Treating opioid addiction Researchers have developed medications to help people recover from opioid addiction. Methadone and buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex) both activate the opioid receptors just enough to prevent an opioid-addicted person from feeling withdrawal or cravings, but not enough for them to get high. This helps prevent relapse while their brain gradually heals. Naltrexone (Vivitrol) blocks opioid receptors and prevents the opioid from having its usual effects My personal experience with both methadone and suboxone have proven that you can get high from the " recommended dose" of methadone and most people do....it is pure synthetic opioid.... on the other , so that the amount of the synthetic opioid attaching is reduced....our experience has been that suboxone is a much better drug for both withdrawal treatment and to greatly reduce the cravings and the person can function without impairment, unlike methadone.
Wish someone would pay for rehab for me.been a opioid addict for 8 years and been to rehab a few times but never Guv in anything to help with withdraw and being I have no insurance they only keep me for 3 days I need proper treatment and meds to control this cause when I'm out I rather be dead than deal with withdraws so if your reading this and you can help I beg for your help before this addiction kills me and thank you

We're sorry to hear about your struggles and appreciate you reaching out to us. As a federal scientific research agency, we are unable to provide medical advice. It is important to listen to what your body is telling you, and seek medical help. If you feel you are in crisis, please have someone drive you to the emergency room or call 911. To find treatment in your area, please call 1-800-662-4357 (toll-free) or visit this website and enter your location: https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/. This free service is available 24/7/365. If you aren't sure what to do or just want to talk to someone, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Please attach yourself to a minister of the gospel who can sincerely pray & ask f/Gods intervention in your life. You need salvation f/this terrible man invented curse on your body .
great article. very informative. i never thought that i will be researching an article such as this.
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Excellent informative article, but my favorite part was seeing the caring response to someone who suffers with the problems described. God bless those who answered to help, and God bless the person who is trying to overcome addiction.
The drug companies that created this epidemic needs to pay for any help adicts need, certainly not the taxpayer nor the insurance premium payer.

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