What’s the Connection Between Prescription Pain Pills and Heroin?

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bottles of pills

Note: This is an updated version of a post we first published in 2014.

You may have heard (on this blog or elsewhere) that deaths from overdosing on heroin, and on prescription pain pills, have spiked in recent years. In fact, the increase has been so great, the problem is now a public health epidemic.

Heroin and prescription pain pills belong to the same class of drugs: opioids. Opioids attach to specific molecules called opioid receptors, which are found on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, intestines, and other organs in the body. When opioids attach to these receptors, they can decrease the amount of pain a person is feeling.

Opioids can also cause a person to feel relaxed and happy—and that can lead some people to misuse the drugs. And some who become dependent on prescription pain pills switch to heroin because it’s cheaper than opioids, easier to get, and has similar effects.

Misusing prescription pain pills, and using heroin, are very risky moves.

How opioids can kill

Opioid drugs of all kinds can be very addictive. When someone has an addiction to prescription pain pills or heroin, it’s very difficult for them to stop using the drug. When they try to stop, they may have withdrawal symptoms: restlessness, muscle and bone pain, diarrhea, vomiting, trouble sleeping, cold flashes with goosebumps, and uncontrollable leg movements.

Continuing to use opioids, however, can lead to sleepiness and constipation; worse, depending on the amount someone takes, opioids can reduce the person's ability to breathe. In fact, taking just one large dose of prescription pain pills or heroin could cause someone’s breathing to stop. This is how people die from an overdose.

Ending opioid abuse

The good news is, there are medications that can help a person stop abusing opioids and overcome their addiction. There’s also a medication called Naloxone® that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose—if it’s given quickly enough to the person who has stopped breathing.

Did you know prescription pain pills and heroin work in similar ways, and misusing either of them can lead to death? In the comments, tell us your thoughts about the opioid epidemic.

Learn more: what’s the deadliest opioid?

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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