Opioids: What You Need to Know

Opioids are a family of drugs that range from illegal street drugs such as heroin to medicines available by prescription, such as oxycodone, codeine, hydrocodone, and morphine. All opioids work in similar ways, by binding to small structures called opioid receptors that are found in the brain, spinal cord, and other areas of the body. This binding blocks pain messages, reducing the amount of pain a person feels. Opioids also cause feelings of pleasure, making them increased risk for abuse and addiction.

Uses of Opioids

Opioids are prescribed to treat acute, chronic, and cancer pain. They are also used as cough suppressants and to control diarrhea. Some are used to treat addiction to other substances.

Are There Risks Associated with Opioids?

Yes. Opioids can be habit forming, leading to physical dependence and addiction. Long-term use may lead to tolerance, meaning more of the drug is needed to achieve the same pain-relieving effect. Taking larger doses or using them more frequently than prescribed increases the risk of overdose. Common signs of overdose include depressed breathing, unconsciousness, slowed heart rate, pale and clammy skin, confusion, and severe drowsiness. Immediate medical attention should be sought.

Side Effects of Opioids

Common side effects of opioid medications include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Constipation
  • Headache
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating

In addition, opioids can affect hormones, making them less effective for some forms of birth control.

What Should You Do Before Taking Opioids?

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about your medical history and any other medications you're taking. Make sure you understand how to take the medication correctly and what the potential side effects are.