What Are Opioids

Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), codeine, morphine, and many others.

Opioids are commonly prescribed because they are effective in relieving many types of pain. These medications are classified as narcotics and can be dangerous when abused. When used properly, opioids such as morphine have long been known to help the severe pain that follows surgery and to alleviate the suffering of people with advanced cancer. Recently, morphine and similar drugs have been used to treat chronic pain not caused by cancer. For many people, they have been remarkably helpful; for others, it either hasn’t worked or has created problems over time.

Taken as directed, opioids can manage pain effectively when used for a short amount of time. With long-term use, people need to be screened and monitored because a fraction of those treated will develop an addiction disorder, abuse the drugs, or give them to others. Long-term daily use of opioids leads to physical dependence, which is not to be confused with addiction disorder. An addiction disorder occurs in about 5 percent of people who take these pain relievers as directed over the period of a year. An addiction disorder can be treated, but like those who misuse or illegally distribute prescription drugs, the prescriber needs to be vigilant to identify and address these problems. That is why everyone who uses prescription opioids needs to be screened and closely monitored.

List of opioid-only products

The following products contain only opioids:

  • buprenorphine
  • butorphanol
  • codeine sulfate
  • fentanyl
  • hydrocodone bitartrate
  • hydromorphone
  • levorphanol tartrate
  • meperidine hydrochloride
  • methadone hydrochloride
  • morphine sulfate
  • oxycodone
  • oxymorphone
  • tapentadol
  • tramadol

When people have physical dependence and the opioid use is stopped, withdrawal symptoms include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps (“cold turkey”), and involuntary leg movements. Taken in large doses, or in combination with tranquilizers or alcohol, opioids can cause a deadly overdose that causes breathing to stop. To prevent an overdose, it is important to take opioids only as prescribed and to not combine them with other medications unless directed to do so by the prescriber. As clinicians and monitoring systems become more sophisticated, and opioids are better designed to be tamper-resistant or abuse-deterrent, healthcare providers believe that those who suffer because of a fear of addiction will receive the treatment they so desperately need. 

opioids