Opioids, sometimes called narcotics, are a type of drug. They include strong prescription pain relievers, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, and tramadol. The illegal drug heroin is also an opioid. Some opioids are made from the opium plant, and others are synthetic (man-made).
A doctor may give you a prescription opioid to reduce pain after you have had a major injury or surgery. You may get them if you have severe pain from health conditions like cancer. Some doctors prescribe them for chronic pain.
Opioids can cause side effects such as drowsiness, mental fog, nausea, and constipation. They may also cause slowed breathing, which can lead to overdose deaths. If someone has signs of an overdose, call 911:
- The person's face is extremely pale and/or feels clammy to the touch
- Their body goes limp
- Their fingernails or lips have a purple or blue color
- They start vomiting or making gurgling noises
- They cannot be awakened or are unable to speak
- Their breathing or heartbeat slows or stops
Other risks of using prescription opioids include dependence and addiction. Dependence means feeling withdrawal symptoms when not taking the drug. Addiction is a chronic brain disease that causes a person to compulsively seek out drugs, even though they cause harm. The risks of dependence and addiction are higher if you misuse the medicines. Misuse can include taking too much medicine, taking someone else's medicine, taking it in a different way than you are supposed to, or taking the medicine to get high.
Opioid misuse, addiction, and overdoses are serious public health problems in the United States. Another problem is that more women are misusing opioids during pregnancy. This can lead to babies being addicted and going through withdrawal, known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). Opioid misuse may sometimes also lead to heroin use, because some people switch from prescription opioids to heroin.
The main treatment for prescription opioid addiction is medication-assisted treatment (MAT). It includes medicines, counseling, and support from family and friends. MAT can help you stop using the drug, get through withdrawal, and cope with cravings. There is also a medicine called naloxone which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and prevent death, if it is given in time.
To prevent problems with prescription opioids, be sure to follow your doctor's instructions when taking them. Do not share your medicines with anyone else. Contact your doctor if you have any concerns about taking the medicines.
NIH: National Institute on Drug Abuse
- Help, Resources and Information: National Opioids Crisis (Department of Health and Human Services)
- Opioid Addiction (American Academy of Family Physicians) Also in Spanish
- Opioid Overdose Crisis (National Institute on Drug Abuse) Also in Spanish
- Understanding the Opioid Epidemic (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Prevention and Risk Factors
- Opioid Overdose Prevention: Safety Advice for Patients and Family Members (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) - PDF
- What to Ask Your Doctor Before Taking Opioids (Food and Drug Administration) Also in Spanish
Treatments and Therapies
- Opioid Abuse and Addiction Treatment: MedlinePlus Health Topic (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
- Benzodiazepines and Opioids (National Institute on Drug Abuse)
- Know Your Options (to Manage Your Pain Without Opioids) (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Fentanyl (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Fentanyl (National Institute on Drug Abuse)
- Heroin: MedlinePlus Health Topic (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
- Hydromorphone (Drug Enforcement Administration)
- Prescription Opioids (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Prescription Opioids DrugFacts (National Institute on Drug Abuse)
- Prescription Pain Relievers (Opioids) (Partnership to End Addiction)
- Opioid addiction: MedlinePlus Genetics (National Library of Medicine)
Statistics and Research
- Abuse of Prescription Pain Medications Risks Heroin Use (National Institute on Drug Abuse) - PDF
- Although Relatively Few, "Doctor Shoppers" Skew Opioid Prescribing (National Institute on Drug Abuse)
- An Ambitious Research Plan to Help Solve the Opioid Crisis: HEAL Initiative (National Institute on Drug Abuse)
- Data Overview: Overview of an Epidemic (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Spotlight on Opioids (Surgeon General) - PDF
- Gene Variants Reduce Opioid Risks (National Institute on Drug Abuse)
- Opioid Summaries by State (National Institute on Drug Abuse)
- Statement on Public-Private Partnerships as Part of the NIH HEAL Initiative (National Institutes of Health)
- ClinicalTrials.gov: Opioid Dependence and Addiction (National Institutes of Health)
Journal Articles References and abstracts from MEDLINE/PubMed (National Library of Medicine)
- Article: Hazardous alcohol use is associated with greater pain interference and prescription...
- Article: Effect of an mHealth Intervention on Hepatitis C Testing Uptake Among...
- Article: Association between county level cannabis dispensary counts and opioid related mortality...
- Opioid Misuse and Addiction -- see more articles
- Commonly Used Opioid Terms (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Find an Expert
- Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Also in Spanish
- Drug Enforcement Administration
- Food and Drug Administration
- National Institute on Drug Abuse Also in Spanish
- Partnership to End Addiction
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- Accidental Exposures to Fentanyl Patches Continue to Be Deadly to Children (Food and Drug Administration)
- Mind Matters: The Body's Response to Opioids (National Institute on Drug Abuse)
- Misuse of Prescription Pain Relievers: The Buzz Takes Your Breath Away. Permanently. (Food and Drug Administration)
- Opioid Facts for Teens (National Institute on Drug Abuse) - PDF Also in Spanish
- Prescription Pain Medications (Opioids) (National Institute on Drug Abuse) Also in Spanish