Opioids can either be prescription pain relief medications or illegal substances. People taking opioids may experience feelings of pain relief, euphoria, drowsiness, and relaxation. They can be dangerous and lead to addiction if misused for medical or nonmedical reasons.
While opioids serve a medical purpose for people with moderate-to-severe pain, they can also be dangerous for those who use these drugs without medical guidance or for nonmedical reasons.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of people who died from an overdose involving opioids across the United States has risen from 21,089 in 2010 to 68,630 in 2020.
This article explains what opioids are, how they make people feel, the risks of addiction, and what to do if dependence or addiction develop.
Opioids are drugs that come from the opium poppy plant. Healthcare professionals prescribe opioid medications to treat ongoing or severe pain, often relating to:
Some examples of prescription opioids include:
Other opioids that do not have a medical purpose and that healthcare professionals do not prescribe include heroin and illegally manufactured fentanyl.
Anyone taking opioids can be at serious risk of addiction and overdose if people use them in a manner other than how a healthcare professional prescribes them, or if someone uses them without a prescription.
People can take opioids in:
- pill form
- by injection or intravenously (IV)
- via a skin patch
- as a suppository
One of the ways opioids work is by releasing a wave of dopamine throughout the body. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter linked to sensations of pleasure and activates the reward centers of the brain.
Opioid medications attach themselves to opioid receptors in the brain, gut, and spinal cord, as well as other parts of the body. By doing so, they prevent the body from sending pain signals to the brain.
However, when people use opioids over an extended period, they may develop a physical dependence. This means that their body relies on opioids to function properly. Addiction is different because an addicted individual will continue to use opioids despite experiencing negative consequences and harmful outcomes.
Learn more about how opioids affect the brain.
Physical sensations are unique to every person, so describing them can be difficult. However, opioids may trigger the following positive and negative feelings in those who use them:
- slower breathing
Slower breathing due to opioid misuse can lead to the brain not getting enough oxygen, a condition known as hypoxia. Hypoxia can lead to:
- brain damage
Hypoxia is often the cause of death from an opioid overdose.
Learn more about the signs of an opioid overdose and how to help.
It is possible for anyone to develop an addiction to opioids if they use them for a long period without appropriate medical supervision. However, the risk of addiction might be higher for:
- younger people
- those with a medical history that includes current or previous substance misuse
- individuals with untreated mental health disorders
- people from social or familial environments that encourage opioid misuse
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), around 4–6% of people who misuse prescription opioids go on to use heroin. Likewise, about 80% of those who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.
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Be sure to gather as much information as possible before starting to use opioids. To reduce the risk of addiction, people who decide that opioids would be the most effective way to manage severe or chronic pain should:
- avoid taking greater doses than prescribed or taking opioids more often than a doctor advises
- inform a healthcare professional about any unwanted side effects or addiction concerns
- refrain from mixing opioids with other medications, especially benzodiazepines, muscle relaxants, hypnotics, and other opioid medications
- avoid selling or sharing opioids
- store opioids in a safe location that others cannot access
- dispose of unused opioids at the end of treatment, either via a drug takeback or mail-back program or by flushing them down the toilet
Opioid addiction can feel isolating and suffocating, but it is important for people living through substance misuse to know that they are not alone. Services are available that can help people find treatment and recover from opioid misuse, including:
- speaking with a healthcare professional
- contacting the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) hotline at 1-800-662-HELP
- finding the nearest SAMSHA addiction treatment center using the Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator
Here are some frequently asked questions about opioids.
Do opioids make you feel sleepy or awake?
Opioids can cause extreme drowsiness. However, they can also interfere with a person’s sleep cycle by making the transitions between sleep stages longer.
People who stop taking opioids and experience withdrawal may also have severe insomnia. While opioids have a reputation for causing sleepiness, they can interfere with sleep in the long run.
How do you know if you’re addicted to opioids?
Substance use disorders (SUDs)
If this progresses to addiction, people may find themselves engaging in behaviors to access the drug that has unintended, harmful consequences. They may step back from responsibilities at home, work, or school, as using opioids has taken priority in their life.
However, withdrawal symptoms may also occur if a person has been using opioids for medical reasons and they stop taking them. In this instance, a person may not have an addiction, but instead, their body has become dependent on opioids.
Withdrawal symptoms include:
- bone and muscle pain
- sleep disturbances
- vomiting and diarrhea
- cold flashes
- uncontrollable leg movements
- extreme cravings
These highly uncomfortable symptoms can make it extremely difficult for people to stop using opioids.
Opioids can be important for relieving severe or chronic pain, and they may have a few pleasant side effects, such as relaxation or happiness.
However, the risks of a fatal overdose and addiction mean that it is vital to take opioids as prescribed by a healthcare professional and stop using them once the course of treatment ends.
If addiction worries someone, contact SAMHSA’s helpline at 1-800-662-HELP or speak with a healthcare professional about options.