Opioids are powerful painkillers that can get the job done when other analgesics can’t cut it. However, opioids are safe only when prescribed and taken following a healthcare provider’s instruction. Taking too many opioids or using them longer than needed could cause addiction or opioid use disorder.
In this article, we’ll provide a comprehensive opioid drug list to help you navigate the world of opioids.
What Are Opioid Drugs?
Opioid drugs, also called narcotics or prescription painkillers, are controlled substances that are used to treat moderate to severe pain. However, they come with a high risk of addiction and prescription opioid misuse.
According to the CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention), over a million people have died due to opioids since 1999. In 2021 alone, there were over 106,000 opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. This is why opioid drugs are tightly regulated and closely monitored.
How Do Opioid Drugs Work?
Opioid drugs work by binding to specific opioid receptors in the central nervous system, known as mu receptors. When these receptors are activated, they block pain signals from being transmitted to the brain, resulting in reduced pain perception.
Opioid receptors also give you a feeling of euphoria and relaxation, which is why many people become addicted and develop physical dependence on opioids.
Another major effect of opioid drugs is respiratory depression, which means they slow down your breathing. Slowed breathing can be fatal in case of an overdose because your lungs might stop breathing altogether.
Medical Uses of Opioid Drugs
Opioids aren’t usually healthcare providers’ first choice when it comes to medication. They’re only prescribed in certain cases because they come with a risk of opioid addiction or opioid use disorder.
Here are a few cases when your doctor might prescribe opioid pain relievers:
- Severe pain
List of Commonly Abused Drugs
Before we get into the different types of opioid drugs, here’s a quick list of commonly prescribed opioids that are often abused.
Types of Opioid Drugs
Generally speaking, there are three types of opioid drugs: natural, semi-synthetic, and synthetic. All of the opioids mentioned above, plus heroin and carfentanil, fall into one of these three categories.
Natural opioids are extracted from the opium poppy plant and have been used for centuries to treat chronic pain and other conditions. They’re often called opiates.
Morphine is one of the strongest naturally derived opioids. It’s used to treat severe pain but has a high potential for addiction. Most synthetic opioids are modeled after morphine or bear some kind of chemical resemblance to it.
Morphine is often administered intravenously or orally to patients in hospitals.
Codeine is used to treat mild to moderate pain and is often combined with other medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
It’s also an excellent cough suppressant and goes into lots of cough medications.
Codeine is available over-the-counter in some countries, but it’s tightly regulated in others due to its potential for abuse. However, it’s less likely to cause withdrawal symptoms compared to most opioids.
Thebaine is a minor constituent of the opium poppy plant that is rarely used as is. It’s usually the base for making other opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.
Thebaine has a low potency compared to other opioids and isn’t typically used alone to treat pain.
Semi-Synthetic Opioid Drugs
Semi-synthetic opioids are made by putting natural opioids through different synthetic processes. They’re often stronger than natural opioids for pain relief, but you’re also more likely to develop a substance use disorder with them.
Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid drug that’s illegal in most countries. It’s highly addictive and can lead to physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms with just a few doses; that’s why it’s a major contributor to the opioid epidemic.
Heroin is often injected, snorted, or smoked.
Oxycodone is one of the most commonly prescribed medications for moderate to severe pain.
It has a high potential for addiction, but unlike heroin, oxycodone isn’t illegal as long as you use it as prescribed and acquire it legally.
Oxycodone comes in various formulations, including immediate-release, extended-release, and combination tablets. Extended-release oxycodone is the most dangerous when abused, especially if you grind, crush, or dissolve it instead of swallowing it.
Doing any of these things releases a considerable amount of the drug into your system at once instead of gradually over time as the manufacturers intended. This leads to an overdose more often than not.
Famous oxycodone brands you may have heard of include OxyContin, Percocet, and Roxicodone.
Oxymorphone is a semi-synthetic opioid drug derived from morphine. However, it’s almost three times more potent than oral morphine, making it suitable to treat moderate to severe pain. It also has a higher risk of addiction and drug abuse.
Oxymorphone is available in immediate-release and extended-release formulations.
Hydrocodone has both analgesic and cough-suppressant effects. It’s much more effective than codeine for cough and almost as potent as morphine when it comes to pain relief.
According to the American Addiction Centers, hydrocodone is the most prescribed and abused opioid drug. Some studies also show that hydrocodone is highly popular in the United States, which consumes about 99% of the global hydrocodone market.
This is why hydrocodone is strictly regulated by the DEA.
Vicodin is one of the most popular brands of hydrocodone, containing a combination of hydrocodone and acetaminophen (paracetamol).
Buprenorphine is a semi-synthetic opioid similar to morphine but about 25 times stronger.
It’s classified as a partial opioid agonist, binding to opioid receptors but not as strongly as other substances. This is why buprenorphine has an analgesic effect but doesn’t cause euphoria or respiratory depression like other opioids.
Buprenorphine can help you recover from an opioid addiction and is part of many long-term treatment plans.
Naloxone is a semi-synthetic opioid that can be life-saving in case of an opioid overdose. It’s classified as an opioid antagonist, which blocks opioid receptors, preventing opioids from working.
You can get naloxone over-the-counter in most countries.
If you or a loved one is recovering from drug use, it’s better to have naloxone handy in case of a relapse.
Synthetic Opioid Drugs
Completely artificial, these opioids are designed to mimic the effects of natural opioids. However, they’re extremely potent. They run a high risk of addiction, making them more dangerous than other drugs.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid drug that is about 100 times more potent than morphine. It’s used in very few cases as a last resort to treat severe pain, such as with cancer patients.
Fentanyl is given in extremely small doses and has a high risk of accidental overdose. In fact, according to the DEA, the lethal dose for fentanyl is just 2 mg.
Also, fentanyl has an extremely small molecular size, which means it can pass through your skin layer. You can absorb fentanyl by simply coming in contact with it.
Fentanyl comes in various forms, including transdermal patches, tablets, and injections.
Methadone is used to treat opioid addiction. It works by binding to opioid receptors, but it doesn’t lead to euphoria like the other opioids.
Methadone can help reduce your withdrawal symptoms and opioid cravings while managing chronic pain.
It also stays in your blood for a relatively long time. This means you don’t need large or frequent doses. However, you can still develop dependence while using methadone, so you should stick to the doses prescribed by your rehab doctor.
Carfentanil, also known as the elephant tranquilizer, is a powerful synthetic opioid made from fentanyl. It’s about 5,000 times as potent as heroin and almost 10,000 times as strong as morphine.
Carfentanil is mainly used in veterinary practices as a general anesthetic for large animals. However, the DEA has found that many illicit drugs are often mixed with a small amount of carfentanil, which can be lethal.
Opioid drugs can be helpful in managing pain, but keep their potential for abuse and addiction in mind. Some are relatively safe, while others are highly addictive.
Hopefully, with this guide, you now know which opioids you can take and which ones to steer clear of for a healthier, pain-free life.