What are opioids?
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 health care provider 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 providers prescribe them for chronic pain.
What are the side effects and risks of opioids?
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. These signs may include:
- Very small pupils of the eyes
- Falling asleep or loss of consciousness
- Slow, shallow breathing
- Choking or gurgling sounds
- Limp body
- Pale, blue, or cold skin
- Faint heartbeat
- Purple lips and fingernails
When using opioids, there is also a risk of opioid use disorder (OUD).
What is opioid use disorder (OUD)?
Opioid use disorder (OUD) means that you have a problematic pattern of using opioids. The pattern causes a lot of distress and impairment (meaning that it causes problems in and interferes with your daily life). Instead of OUD, sometimes people use the terms "opioid dependence" and "opioid 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 risk of OUD is higher if you misuse the medicines. Misuse can include taking more than your prescribed dose or taking it more often, using it to get high, or taking someone else's opioids.
Opioid use disorder and overdoses are serious public health problems in the United States. As more people misuse opioids, more women are misusing opioids during pregnancy. This can lead to health risks for the mother and baby. The baby may be born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). NAS is a group of withdrawal symptoms that a baby has after being exposed to drugs during pregnancy.
Another problem with increased opioid misuse is that it can also lead to more heroin use. There are some people who switch from prescription opioids to heroin because heroin may be cheaper and easier to get.
How are opioid use disorder (OUD) and opioid overdose treated?
There are effective medicines to treat OUD. Using medicines to treat OUD is called medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD). MOUD can help you stop using the drug, get through withdrawal, and cope with cravings. It is often combined with behavioral therapy and counseling. Having support from family and friends can also help.
There is also a medicine called naloxone which can treat opioid overdoses. It can reverse the effects of the overdose and prevent death if it is given quickly.
How can I prevent problems when taking prescription opioids?
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
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) Also in Spanish
- Know Your Options (to Manage Your Pain Without Opioids) (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Opioids and Dental Pain (National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research) Also in Spanish
- Fentanyl (National Institute on Drug Abuse)
- Fentanyl (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Heroin: MedlinePlus Health Topic (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
- Hydromorphone (Drug Enforcement Administration)
- Opioids (Prescription Pain Relievers) (Partnership to End Addiction)
- Prescription Opioids (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Prescription Opioids DrugFacts (National Institute on Drug Abuse) Also in Spanish
- Opioid addiction: MedlinePlus Genetics (National Library of Medicine)
Statistics and Research
- Data Overview: Opioids (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Overdose Death Rates (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: Subthreshold opioid use disorder prevention (STOP) trial: a cluster randomized clinical...
- Article: Adoption of Emergency Department-Initiated Buprenorphine for Patients With Opioid Use Disorder:...
- Article: Risk of relapse to non-opioid addictive substances among opioid dependent patients...
- Opioids and Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) -- see more articles
- Commonly Used Opioid Terms (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Find an Expert
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Also in Spanish
- Drug Enforcement Administration
- FindTreatment.gov (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services 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) Also in Spanish
- What Is Fentanyl? (For Parents) (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- What Is Narcan (Naloxone)? (For Parents) (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- What Is Xylazine? (For Parents) (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- Mind Matters: The Body's Response to Opioids (National Institute on Drug Abuse) Also in Spanish
- Misuse of Prescription Pain Relievers: The Buzz Takes Your Breath Away. Permanently. (Food and Drug Administration)