Prescription Pain Medications (Opioids)

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A bottle with a hydrocodone label and hydrocodone tablets spilling out isolated on white background.

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Also known as: Happy Pills, Hillbilly Heroin, OC, Oxy, Percs, or Vikes

What are prescription opioids?

Prescription opioids are medications that are chemically similar to endorphins – opioids that our body makes naturally to relieve pain. They are also similar to the illegal drug heroin. In nature, opioids are found in the seed pod of the opium poppy plant. Prescription opioids usually come in pill or liquid form, and are given to treat severe pain—for example, pain from dental surgery (read more about drug use and your mouth), serious sports injuries, or cancer. If you are in the hospital, they can be given through an IV (needle and tube) in your arm. Opioids are sometimes prescribed to treat pain that lasts a long time (chronic pain), but it is unclear if they are effective for long term pain.

When opioids are taken as prescribed by a medical professional for a short time, they can be relatively safe and can reduce pain effectively. However, taking prescription opioids, puts you at risk for dependence and addiction. Dependence means you feel withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking the drug. Continued use can lead to addiction, where you continue to seek out the drug and use it despite negative consequences. These risks increase when the medications are misused. Prescription medications are some of the most commonly misused drugs by teens, after tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana.

Opioid medications can be natural, created in labs from natural opioids, or synthetic (human-made). Common opioids and their medical uses are listed below.

Opioids
Opioid Types Conditions They Treat
  • oxycodone (OxyContin®, Percodan®, Percocet®)
  • hydrocodone (Vicodin®)
  • diphenoxylate (Lomotil®)
  • morphine (Kadian®, Avinza®)
  • codeine
  • fentanyl (Duragesic®)
  • propoxyphene (Darvon®)
  • hydromorphone (Dilaudid®)
  • meperidine (Demerol®)
  • methadone
  • severe pain, often after surgery
  • some forms of long-lasting pain (severe)
  • cough and diarrhea

Fentanyl has been in the news recently. It is a powerful synthetic (human-made) opioid that is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, and is prescribed for extreme pain. It is extremely dangerous if misused, and is sometimes added to illicit drugs sold by drug dealers. Find out more about Fentanyl.

How Prescription Opioids Are Misused

People misuse prescription opioid medications by taking them in a way that is not intended, such as:

  • Taking someone else’s prescription, even if it is for a medical reason like relieving pain.
  • Taking an opioid medication in a way other than prescribed—for instance, taking more than the prescribed dose or taking it more often, or crushing pills into powder to snort or inject the drug.
  • Taking the opioid prescription to get "high."
  • Mixing it with alcohol or certain other drugs. Your pharmacist can tell you what other drugs are safe to use with prescription pain relievers.
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