What are prescription drugs (opioids)?

Prescription drugs or opioids related to the class of drugs derived naturally from a poppy plant. Other prescription opioids are made straight from the plants, and some are made artificially in the labs, maintaining similar chemical patterns. Opioids are commonly used for medicinal purposes, as pain reducers or relaxers. The main use of prescription opioids is to treat moderate to severe pains, and some as cough suppressants or diarrhea aid.   For some patients, the opioids may be used as relaxers, that create a high that helps them to feel calm. However, some people find a different use for these opioids as a recreational experience.  The downside is that these opioids are very powerful, and misuse of these drugs may lead to addiction. Overdose and death are common denominators in opioids abuse. One of the most dangerous opioids is heroin, and it is never used to treat any medical conditions.

Trendy nicknames for some commonly used opioids are Oxy, Percs, and Vikes.

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What are some common prescription opioids?

  • fentanyl
  • codeine
  • morphine
  • oxymorphone
  • hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)

How do people use prescription opioids?

When opioids used as prescribed by a medical professional, they are pretty safe to be taken for pains or other conditions. However, some people tend to misuse prescription opioids in several ways:

  • taking and administering medications in a different way than prescribed by a doctor
  • using someone’s prescription to obtain and take medications
  • taking medications to get high

People use several ways to delivery opioids into their system. They either swallow it as pills, crush pills or capsules, and dilute them in water to self-inject intravenously.  Some people snort the powder.

How do prescription opioids affect the brain?

Opioids bind to an opioid receptors on cells found in the brain, spinal cord, and other organs, that control pain and pleasure and called the reward system. Once opioids bind to the receptors, they create a barrier for pain signals sent from the brain to the body, and release a large flow of dopamine throughout the body. This releasing process can intensify an uncontrollable desire to take drugs over and over again.

What are the effects of prescription opioids?

While taking the opioids as prescribed they can serve their purpose of relieving the pain and produce relaxing effects. However long-term use may have adverse effects on body and brain functions. Some of them include:

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  • shallow breathing
  • euphoria
  • confusion
  • drowsiness
  • nausea
  • constipation

Shallow or slow breathing caused by opioid misuse may lead to condition called hypoxia. This condition occurs when a low amount of oxygen delivered to the brain. This condition may have moderate to severe psychological and neurological effects, including coma, permanent brain damage, or even death.  Other risks associated with opioids misuse or abuse may be frequent among seniors due to multiple prescriptions and chronic conditions. There may be drug on drug interactions, and a slowed break down of drugs. Other, more habitual drug users may be at risk for contracting HIV and hepatitis A and B due to needles sharing, unprotected sex, and impaired judgment.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, prescription opioids and heroin have a similar chemical structure and can produce the same powerful effects. Reports and data from 2011 indicate that about 80 percent of people who used heroin, first used prescription opioids, making them a gateway drug.

Tolerance vs Dependence

Tolerance to prescription opioids may develop early on in the beginning stages of taking the drug, even if it’s prescribed by a physician. Tolerance may cause individuals the need to take higher and more frequent dosages to achieve the same effects.

Dependence on opioids may develop if the prescription drugs are taken repeatedly, resulting in modification of neurons, which makes it impossible for normal function unless the opioids are present.  If a  drug intake is decreased, a person may experience mild to severe withdrawal symptoms, that can become fatal.

What is prescription opioid addiction?

Opioid addiction as any other addiction to drugs is considered a mental health disorder, that associates with compulsive drug-seeking, uncontrollable drug use and cravings regardless of damaging and life-threatening consequences. Repeated misuse of prescription opioids, may result in a condition called substance use disorder. This disorder advances due to changes in the brain function caused by drug abuse.

Signs of opioid addiction include: 

  • inability to stop using drugs
  • taking higher dosages to achieve desired effects
  • mood changes
  • agitation
  • impaired judgment and decision making
  • doctors shopping (going from doctor to doctor to obtain multiple prescriptions for the same opioid)
  • stealing and lying to get more drugs
  • insomnia
  • loss of coordination
  • high alertness
  • confusion
  • drowsiness
  • shallow breathing
  • neglecting responsibilities, such as work, school, and job
  • avoiding social activities
  • isolation to hide drug use


What are the withdrawal symptoms of prescription opioids?

If a person decides to stop using prescription opioids abruptly, they may experience severe withdrawal symptoms, that may occur a few hours after the last time the drug was taken. These symptoms may include:

  • severe cravings
  • cold flashes
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • insomnia
  • muscle aches and stiffness, bone pain
  • unmanagable leg movement
  • restlessness
  • skin irritations and
  • rapid heart rate
  • excessive sweating
  • high fever
  • seizures
  • anxiety and agitation
  • depression
  • tremors

What is a treatment for prescription opioids addiction?

There are proven and evidence-based treatments available for prescription opioids addiction. Medications like buprenorphine and methadone are used to target opioid receptors in the brain to help with withdrawal symptoms and decrease cravings.  Other medications help block opioid receptors to avert harmful opioid effects. Cognitive-behavioral therapy utilized in prescription opioid addiction treatment can help patients alter their behaviors associated with drug use, and adapt healthy life skills for the drug-free journey. Also, a recovering addict will learn ways to manage triggers and cravings to be applied during a post-treatment time. A combination of medications and behavioral therapy had demonstrated substantial progress in patients with addiction disorders, and significant improvement in long-term functioning.