Opioid Drugs 101: Types, Effects & Why They’re Dangerous

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When it comes to opioid drugs, everyone has a different opinion.

Some people say they’re indispensable because of their powerful painkilling effects. Others are worried about their widespread addiction and the possibility of overdose. Both opinions are sensitive, but it’s not so cut and dried.

In this article, we’ll go through everything you need to know about opioids so you can make your own opinion. From opioid types and uses to side effects and addiction treatments, we’ve got it covered.

What Are Opioid Drugs?

Opioid drugs, often called narcotics, are powerful pain relievers that are used when traditional painkillers such as aspirin aren’t enough.

Prescription opioids are typically prescribed following surgery or an injury to help you cope with the pain. Cancer patients are often prescribed opioid drugs to manage chronic pain and sudden onset of severe pain.

There are also illegal forms of opioid drugs, such as heroin, which have no medical use and are abused.

Read More: How and when opioids are prescribed

Types of Opioid Drugs

There are several types of opioid drugs, each with a different level of painkilling action and different side effects. Some medications are also safer than others and less likely to lead to dependence or addiction.

Some opioid drugs can be taken orally, in the form of pills, while others come in skin patch or injection form.

Regardless of how they’re taken, opioid drugs are generally classified into three categories: natural, semi-synthetic, and synthetic. Here are some of the most popular opioid drugs for each category.

Natural Opioids

Natural opioids are derived directly from the opium poppy plant, Papaver somniferum. They include morphine, codeine, and thebaine. Morphine is the most commonly used natural opioid; it’s usually prescribed to treat severe pain. Also, most semi-synthetic opioids are derived from morphine.

Codeine is another naturally occurring opioid that is commonly used as a mild analgesic and goes into cough medication. Thebaine is a lesser-known natural opioid that is mainly used to make semi-synthetic opioids such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.

Semi-Synthetic Opioids

Semi-synthetic opioids are made from natural poppy plant extracts that undergo chemical processes. Some examples of semi-synthetic opioids include heroin, oxycodone, and hydrocodone.

Heroin is a highly addictive, potent, and illegal drug that is banned in most countries. Oxycodone and hydrocodone are commonly prescribed for moderate to severe pain relief, but they also carry high risks of addiction and abuse.

In fact, research shows that most opioid addicts start out with hydrocodone or oxycodone at some point or another before becoming addicted.

Synthetic Opioids

Synthetic opioids are entirely human-made chemicals that lack natural components. They are created using various chemical procedures and can have different properties and effects compared to natural and semi-synthetic opioids. Examples of synthetic opioids include fentanyl, methadone, and tramadol.

Fentanyl is the most dangerous and potent of them, being 100 times more powerful than morphine. It’s usually used as a last resort for surgical anesthesia or to reduce pain in people with end-stage cancer. Illicit fentanyl is extremely dangerous since just 2 milligrams of the drug can be lethal.

Methadone is often used to treat opioid addiction or opioid use disorder. It’s a long-acting drug that stays in your system longer than most opioids, which helps reduce cravings and prevents withdrawal symptoms.

Tramadol is a low-potency synthetic opioid that is used for mild to moderate pain relief.

How Do Opioid Drugs Work?

Opioids are a class of drugs that bind to mu-opioid receptors in the brain and different areas throughout the body.

When these receptors are activated, they start a series of chemical reactions that result in painkilling, euphoric, and sedative effects. Overall, opioid drugs have an inhibitory and relaxing effect on the entire body.

Effects of Opioid Drugs

Opioid drugs can have several beneficial effects when used appropriately or as prescribed. Here are a few examples:

  • Drowsiness or Sleepiness: Opioid drugs slow down the activity of nerve cells in the central nervous system leading to a sense of relaxation, drowsiness, and overall sedation. The stronger the opioid drug, the more prominent the sedative effect.
  • Euphoria: Opioid drugs cause the release of dopamine as part of the brain’s reward system leading to feelings of pleasure and euphoria. This is one of the main reasons behind opioid abuse because people who experience the euphoric effects want to repeat it over and over.
  • Pain Relief: The main function of opioid drugs is to minimize acute pain or the perception of pain. This is another reason people with chronic pain often become dedicated to the painkilling effects of opioid drugs.

In addition to these effects, opioid drugs can have unpleasant and potentially dangerous effects when abused, the most common of which is opioid use disorder.

Opioid Use Disorder (OUD)

Opioid use disorder is a serious medical condition that occurs when opioids are misused or abused. When a person gets used to taking prescription opioids and can’t function normally without them, this is referred to as opioid use disorder or opioid addiction.

Unfortunately over time, this has become a full-blown epidemic.

Opioid use disorder is characterized by both physical and psychological side effects. One of the most common side effects is opioid dependence, which means your body starts to exhibit unpleasant withdrawal symptoms that push you to take more opioids. Here are the main symptoms of OUD.

Symptoms of Opioid Use Disorder

Here are some of the most common symptoms of opioid addiction:

  • Physical Dependence: Your body gets used to opioids, and when you stop taking them, you experience flu-like symptoms such as pain, nausea, confusion, vomiting, muscle aches, and more.
  • Opioid Cravings: You experience powerful urges to use opioids despite awareness of adverse effects.
  • Uncontrolled Opioid Use: Users often can’t stop taking opioids even though they want to, despite being aware of the adverse side effects.
  • Financial Difficulties: Opioid addicts or those with a substance use disorder such as OUD often spend all their money to acquire illicit drugs resulting in substantial debt.

Treating Opioid Use Disorder

There are several treatment programs for opioid addiction, but the most common ones involve medications coupled with counseling and behavioral therapies.

Medications

Methadone and buprenorphine are the most commonly used medications for treating opioid addiction. They can reduce opioid cravings and minimize withdrawal symptoms, helping you stay sober longer and away from opioid drugs.

Counseling

Counseling is just as important for treating opioid addiction. Group therapy sessions and one-on-one motivational counseling can help opioid addicts stick to their treatment program and avoid relapse.

Additionally, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) operates various support hotlines that can help people fight their addiction.

Also, organizations like Curednation provide specialized treatment services for addiction, depression, trauma, and other issues. They offer an online assessment that helps you identify your opioid problem, which is the first step to solving it.

Dangers of Opioid Drugs

A prescription opioid, when taken correctly, is usually relatively safe. However, when taken for prolonged periods or in large doses, opioid medications can have dangerous, life-threatening effects.

For example, opioids slow down most bodily functions, which leads to slowed breathing. Typically this level of slowed breathing isn’t a problem since it causes a mild relaxing effect.

However, with opioid misuse, this slowed breathing can lead to hypoxia, which is a dangerously low level of blood oxygen. Even worse, slowed breathing can lead to respiratory arrest, where your body stops breathing, leading to death.

According to the US Department of Justice, there were about 107,622 drug overdose deaths in 2021 alone. That’s equivalent to about 295 people per day. About two-thirds of these deaths were caused by opioids, making the opioid crisis a leading cause of death in the United States.

According to Cleveland Clinic’s estimates, the global number of people struggling with opioid addiction exceeds 20 million, resulting in over 120,000 fatalities annually due to overdoses.

Opioid abuse is even more dangerous in pregnant mothers. It can lead to major health problems for both the mother and the baby, which can develop neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) when born. This condition causes the baby to experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms that can be life-threatening.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is the Difference Between Opiates and Opioid Drugs?

Opiates are natural chemical substances extracted directly from the poppy plant, such as opium, morphine, and codeine. Opioid drugs, on the other hand, are entirely partly synthetic molecules that are created to mimic the effects of opiates.

How Do You Treat an Opioid Overdose?

The first thing to do is seek professional help. A healthcare provider or EMT will likely give an injection of naloxone to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, followed by other medicines to treat overdose symptoms as they manifest.

Wrapping Up

Opioids are excellent analgesics that help you cope with chronic pain and other health problems. However, if misused, they can lead to addiction and devastating health consequences.

Hopefully, with this article, you know enough about opioids to keep you and your loved ones safe!

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