What Is An Opioid?

While you may have heard the term opioid before, you may be asking, what is an opioid? Opioids are a class of drugs found in the opium poppy plant.1 Opioids can affect the brain in many ways. There are many opioid prescription medications prescribed for pain relief. Heroin is also a common illegal opioid drug abused recreationally for the high it produces.2

Opioids work by blocking or altering pain receptors in the brain. This can be very useful for treating moderate to severe pain. However, opioids are very addictive which can lead to many negative consequences. Prescription opioids are a schedule II controlled substance because they have medical uses but also have highly addictive properties. The illegal drug heroin is a schedule I substance since it doesn’t have medical uses and it’s highly addictive. The use of opioids is only recommended under the supervision of a medical professional and only in recommended doses.

Types of Opioids

Now that we’ve answered, “what is an opioid?”, let’s look at some different types of opioids. Some opioids are prescription medications that are prescribed mainly for pain relief, while others are illegal.

Prescription opioids include oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), fentanyl, methadone, and many others.

The most common illegal opioid is heroin. These drugs work by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, altering the way the body interprets pain which can be very beneficial for pain relief. However, some people may try to abuse or misuse these different types of opioids due to the seemingly pleasant effects they can have when taken in higher doses.

Opioids vs. Opiates

Oftentimes you may hear on the news about opioids and opiates and how they’re having very devastating effects on people’s lives. You may even hear the two terms interchangeably, but there is a distinct difference between the two.

Opiates are considered “natural” because nature creates the active ingredient molecules in the poppy plant. Common opiate drugs are opium, morphine, and codeine.

The term opioids, on the other hand, is used for drugs that are at least partially synthetic. The term synthetic means that the active ingredients are man-made or created chemically in a lab. Opioids act like opiates in the body because they have similar molecules. Common opioids include OxyContin, hydrocodone, heroin, and fentanyl.

Common Opioids


Fentanyl is a prescription drug that is often used to treat severe pain. Fentanyl is very potent.3 It’s sometimes used to treat pain in patients that have chronic pain that is no longer responding to other medications. This drug is also sometimes produced and sold illegally as it is abused recreationally. Recreational use of this drug is very dangerous, and it can be highly addictive.


Oxycodone is a powerful painkiller. It is often found under the brand names OxyContin or Percocet. This drug can be very addictive if taken for a long time or if abused. Oftentimes, abuse of this drug may start by taking the recommended amount, but after a tolerance is built, more of the drug may be taken in an attempt to get the previous effects.


Hydrocodone is a prescription medication that affects the central nervous system in ways that help reduce pain. Hydrocodone can become addictive when it is abused for a long time.


Methadone is an opioid for the treatment of pain. It is also sometimes used to treat heroin addiction. Methadone helps block the effects of stronger drugs, such as heroin, while also helping with withdrawals and cravings that would come from stopping opioid use. However, this drug can still be addictive on its own when misused or abused.

Effects of Opioids

The most common effect of opioids is pain relief. When abused in higher doses, opioids can create a high that seems pleasurable, but can often lead to a cycle of abuse with these drugs. Opioids may also have other negative effects such as drowsiness, nausea, confusion, constipation, and slowed breathing. Abuse of these drugs can be addictive and dangerous. They should only be taken when prescribed by a medical professional and at recommended doses.

Signs of Addiction to Opioids

Oftentimes those who are struggling with an addiction may try to cover up and hide behaviors, making addiction difficult to spot. However, there are common signs you can look for to know that someone might be struggling. Some common signs of opioid addiction include:4

  • Frequent flu-like symptoms
  • Decreased libido
  • Lack of hygiene
  • Changes in exercise habits
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Weight loss
  • Isolation from family or friends
  • The inability to control opioid use
  • Uncontrollable cravings
  • Drowsiness
  • Stealing from family, friends, or businesses
  • New financial difficulties

Overdosing on Opioids

Due to the addictive nature of opioids and the fact that tolerance can quickly be built, opioid overdose can occur. When someone is living with an addiction and using opioids frequently, they will often end up taking higher and higher doses to continue getting the same effect they once had. Doing this can be very dangerous and can often be what leads to an overdose.

Opioid Abuse Statistics

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), “From 1999 to 2018, more than 232,000 people died in the United States from overdoses involving prescription opioids.”5 When opioids are abused, they can be very dangerous. Addiction not only affects the person struggling, but also those who care about them the most. In the United States, there has been a major increase in opioid abuse over the years leading to what’s being called the opioid epidemic.

In efforts to prevent opioid addiction from occurring, medical practices are changing, and opioids are being prescribed less often. The CDC states that “There was a more than 19% reduction in the annual prescribing rate from 2006 to 2017. In 2017, however, there were still almost 58 opioid prescriptions written for every 100 Americans.”6 While there has been a reduction in prescription rates, there still are many Americans each year filling opioid prescriptions. Awareness of opioid abuse is critical and is an important step in healing our communities from the opioid epidemic.

Treatment for Addiction to Opioids

Treating opioid addiction withdrawal symptoms may be very harsh and tough to deal with alone. When getting sober, it’s often a good idea to have medical support available to help address withdrawal. This team also helps teach skills to cope with life without the use of drugs. Going to a treatment center can often be a good idea as it will provide around the clock medical attention and provide therapy to work on coping skills as well as other underlying issues that may have led to the addiction.

Opioids are powerful drugs that are often used as prescription painkillers. Opioids may be prescription medications or illegal drugs. While opioids may have some medicinal benefits, they are still very addictive. Addiction can affect life in many ways and it’s important to get the help needed if there is an addiction. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, there are resources available. Find help today. You don’t have to do this alone.


  1. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/opioids/what-are-opioids.html
  2. https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/opioids
  3. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/fentanyl
  4. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/opioids/signs-of-opioid-abuse.html
  5. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/prescribing/overview.html
  6. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/prescribing/prescribing-practices.html