What Are Opioids?

what are opioids

Opioids are a type of drug used to alleviate one’s pain. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH), “Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), codeine, morphine, and many others.”  Prescription opioid medications are considered controlled substances, and although they have highly addictive qualities, are safe when used for a short period of time, under the direct supervision of a medical professional. Important information regarding medication (e.g., controlled substances) that is regulated by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) includes the potency, the expiration date, additives and ingredients, and the origin of the medication. All information shared regarding illicit drugs such as heroin, as well as illegally sold medications is provided solely at the discretion of the retailer. This exponentially increases one’s risk of overdose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asserts “opioid-involved overdose deaths rose significantly from 46,802 deaths in 2018 to 49,860 in 2019.” Due to the fact that regulated opioids are commonly used in the medical field, their accessibility has grown exponentially over the years, which some believe has contributed to the rise of opioid abuse and addiction. 

How Do They Work?

Opioids work by reducing one’s perception of pain. When opioid medications are ingested they attach to opioid receptors, which are located in one’s brain, spinal cord, gastrointestinal tract, and other organs in one’s body. It is not uncommon for an individual to experience a sense of euphoria when opioids are present in one’s system, as opioids also affect the reward center in one’s brain. When an individual uses illicit opioids, uses prescribed opioids in greater doses than recommended, mixes opioids with other drugs and/ or alcohol, or ingests opioids by way of a method other than intended (e.g., crushes pills and snorts them) he or she raises the risk of overdose and developing other possible medical complications. Further, excessive abuse of opioids can lead to changes in how one’s brain functions.

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