What are opioids?

Opioids are natural or synthetic chemicals that interact with nerve cell receptors in the body and brain to increase pleasant feelings and reduce feelings of pain. They get their name from opium, a drug made from the poppy plant.

Prescription opioids are used to treat moderate-to-severe pain. Pain is considered acute if it starts suddenly and has a known cause, like an injury or surgery. It normally gets better as your body heals. Pain that is chronic usually lasts three months or more and can be caused by a disease or condition, injury, medical treatment, inflammation, or even an unknown reason.

The medication typically comes in a pill form, but can also appear as a liquid, wafer or patch worn on the skin.

Examples of prescribed opioid medi­cations include:

  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin®, Lortab®, or Lorcet®)
  • Oxycodone (Percocet®, OxyContin®, or Percodan®)
  • Codeine (an ingredient in some cough syrups and in one Tylenol® product)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid®)
  • Morphine (MSContin®, MSIR®, Avinza®, or Kadian® Propoxyphene—Darvocet® or Darvon®)
  • Fentanyl (Duragesic®)
  • Methadone

Examples of illegal opioids include heroin and fentanyl. Heroin is a highly addictive opioid drug. An overdose from heroin can cause slow and shallow breathing, coma, and even death. Pharmaceutical fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever, approved for treating severe pain, typically advanced cancer pain. It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Recent cases of fentanyl-related harm, overdose, and death in the US have been linked to illegally made fentanyl. It is often mixed with heroin and/or cocaine as a combination product to increase its effects.