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Prescription Pain Medications (Opioids)

What Are Opioids?

Three viles of prescription drugs

Also known as: oxy, percs, happy pills, hillbilly heroin, OC, or vikes

Opioids, which usually come in pill form, are prescription medications used to reduce pain. Doctors prescribe them after surgery or to help patients with severe pain or pain that lasts a long time. When opioids are taken as prescribed by a medical professional, they are relatively safe and can reduce pain effectively. However, dependence and addiction are still potential risks when taking prescription opioids.  These risks increase when these drugs are abused. Painkillers are one of the most commonly abused drugs by teens, after tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana.

Common opioids and their uses are listed below.

Opioid Types Conditions They Treat
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percodan, Percocet)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet)
  • Diphenoxylate (Lomotil)
  • Morphine (Kadian, Avinza, MS Contin)
  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl (Duragesic)
  • Propoxyphene (Darvon)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Meperidine (Demerol)
  • Methadone
  • Severe pain, often after surgery
  • Chronic (long-lasting) or acute (severe) pain
  • Cough and diarrhea

Read more about prescription drugs and what happens to the brain and body when someone abuses them. And find out what others are doing to prevent teen prescription drug abuse.

How Are Opioids Abused?

 People abuse opioids by taking them in a way that is not intended, such as:

  • Taking someone else’s prescription opioid medication.
    • Even if the person taking the opioid is doing so for the medication’s intended purpose, such as to ease pain, it is considered abuse if the medication is not prescribed to you by a health care clinician.
  • Taking a prescription opioid medication in a way other than prescribed.
    • Taking more of the medication than prescribed, combining it with alcohol or other drugs, or crushing the pills into powder to snort or inject the drug is abuse. Taking opioids in this way increases risk for both addiction and overdose.
  • Taking the opioid prescription to get high.
    • If the primary (most important) reason to take the medication is to get high, it is abuse.

How Do Opioids Affect the Brain?

Opioids attach to specific proteins, called opioid receptors, in the brain, spinal cord, gut, and other organs. When these drugs attach to their receptors, they block pain messages sent from the body through the spinal cord to the brain.

Opioids also can change the part of the brain that controls emotions and cause a person to feel relaxed and extremely happy (euphoric). Repeated abuse of opioids can lead to addiction.

Learn more about how the brain works and what happens when a person abuses drugs.

What Are the Other Effects of Opioids?

Opioids can have effects on many parts of the brain and body beyond those that are involved in pain. Other effects of opioids include:

  • Sleepiness
  • Confusion
  • Nausea (feeling sick to the stomach)
  • Constipation
  • Breathing problems. Taking just 1 large dose could cause serious breathing problems that lead to death.

These medications are not safe to use with alcohol or other medications that may slow breathing, such as depressants, because their combined effects also cause serious breathing problems that could lead to death.

A First Step to Heroin Use?

Prescription opioid pain medications such as OxyContin and Vicodin are made from opium, which comes from the poppy plant. Morphine and codeine are two natural products of opium. Morphine can be turned into heroin. Different opioids are very similar chemically which is why, when prescription opioids are abused, they can have effects that are similar to heroin. Some people who start out abusing opioids and get addicted to them may turn to heroin, which can be cheaper and easier to get on the street. Nearly half of young people who inject heroin surveyed in 3 recent studies reported abusing prescription opioids before starting to use heroin.

Many of these young people also report that crushing prescription opioid pills to snort or inject the powder introduced them to these addictive and dangerous methods of drug taking.

Can You Become Addicted to Prescription Opioids?

Yes. People who abuse prescription opioids are at greater risk than people who take them as prescribed, but the medication is addictive. People who are prescribed opioids by their doctor for a period of several weeks or more may develop a physical dependence to the drug and, in some cases, this may turn into addiction. Dependence is not the same as addiction. Dependence means that the body gets used to the presence of the drug. Addiction is when a person seeks out and uses the drug over and over even though they know it is damaging their health and their life. When someone is dependent on a drug and they stop using or abusing it, they may experience withdrawal symptoms.

Opioid withdrawal can cause:

  • Restlessness
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting (throwing up)
  • Cold flashes with goosebumps (“cold turkey”)
  • Involuntary leg movements

Carefully following the doctor’s instructions for taking a medication can make it less likely that someone will develop dependence or addiction, because the medication is prescribed in amounts and forms that are considered appropriate for that person. However, dependence and addiction are still potential risks when taking certain types of prescription drugs. These risks should be carefully weighed against the benefits of the medication and patients should communicate any issues or concerns to their doctor as soon as they arise. Fortunately, there are effective treatments available for people who abuse or are addicted to prescription opioid medications.

Can You Die If You Abuse Opioids?

Yes. In fact, taking just 1 large dose could cause serious breathing problems that lead to death. In 2014, opioid pain relievers accounted for close to 19,000 deaths in the United States. If you compare it to 2001, when 5,500 people died from an overdose of opioid pain relievers, you can see how dramatically deaths have increased in the last decade. Among young people, males are much more likely to overdose from opioid abuse than are females.1 In 2014, among young people ages 15 – 24, three out of every four deaths from an overdose of pain relievers is a male.

The risk for overdose and death are increased when opioids are combined with alcohol or other drugs, especially depressants such as Benzodiazepines.

There is an “opioid antagonist” medication, Naloxone, which can reverse the effects of opioid overdose and prevent death if it is given in time. Doctors can prescribe Naloxone to people who abuse opioid drugs in the hopes that a friend or family could deliver the drug in the event of an overdose. Naloxone is also commonly carried by emergency responders including police officers and EMTs.

1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Underlying Cause of Death 1999-2014 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released 2015. Available at

How Many Teens Abuse Opioids?

NIDA’s Monitoring the Future study collects data on teen abuse of two types of prescription opioids—Vicodin and OxyContin:

Swipe left or right to scroll.

Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Various Drugs for 8th Graders, 10th Graders, and 12th Graders; 2015 (in percent)*
Drug Time Period 8th Graders 10th Graders 12th Graders
Vicodin Past Year 0.90 2.50 4.40
OxyContin Past Year 0.80 2.60 3.70

* Data in brackets indicate statistically significant change from the previous year.

For the most recent statistics on teen drug abuse, see results from NIDA’s Monitoring the Future study.

What Should I Do If Someone I Know Needs Help?

If you or a friend are in crisis and need to speak with someone now, please call:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (they don't just talk about suicide—they cover a lot of issues and will help put you in touch with someone close by).

If you need information on treatment and where you can find it, you can call:

For more information on how to help a friend or loved one, visit our Have a Drug Problem, Need Help? page.

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