What is an opioid?

An opioid is a class of drugs derived from, or mimicking, natural substances found in the opium poppy plant. Opioids affect the body by working in the brain to produce various effects, including pain relief. They also go by other names, including opiates, narcotics, or painkillers.

All opioids work in similar fashions by activating an area of nerve cells called opioid receptors in the brain and body. When opioid receptors are activated, pain signals between the brain and body are blocked.

Opioids include both illegal drugs and prescription pain medicine. For those who use opioids illegally or not as prescribed, they are generally taken because of the euphoria (“high”) they produce. These drugs can be given as a skin patch, orally, through an injection, or under the tongue. 

Examples of prescription opioids include:

  • Oxymorphone
  • Oxycodone
  • Hydromorphone
  • Hydrocodone
  • Morphine
  • Fentanyl
  • Codeine
  • Methadone
  • Buprenorphine
  • Tramadol

Opioids also include heroin, an illegal street drug.

Side effects of opioids can include:

  • Relaxation
  • Sleepiness
  • Nausea
  • Euphoria
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation

One danger of opioid use is its risk of causing slowed breathing, which may lead to hypoxia or a dangerous reduction in the body’s oxygen.

How do opioids affect healthcare?

Opioids are one type of pain medication prescribed to those experiencing:

  • Severe pain from disease or trauma
  • Post-surgical pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Coughing

This makes them a valuable tool for making the recovery period more endurable.

However, opioid drugs, even of the prescription variety, can cause addiction (opioid use disorder (OUD)), tolerance, and physical dependence. There is also a risk of overdose and death with opioids.