What Is an Opioid: Types, Effects, and Safety


Opioids are usually prescribed by healthcare providers to patients suffering from severe pain conditions or are used in the form of illicit drugs due to their euphoric effects. In both cases, opioids can lead to addiction and even overdose.

Knowing what an opioid is and how it works can enable those struggling with dependence or even addiction to break free from the cycle and live a sober life at last.

Find out everything about opioids and how they work below.

Understanding Opioids

Opioids are a class of drugs commonly prescribed by doctors to treat chronic and severe pain.

The human body is naturally equipped with opioid receptors, which are a type of nerve cells. When people take an opioid, the substance travels through the bloodstream and attaches to the opioid receptors in the brain, leading to several pleasant effects, such as pain relief and even overall well-being.

People can naturally produce opioids, which have the same beneficial results as those ingested. However, the amount of opioids produced by the human body is low and not enough to help people deal with higher levels of pain, such as those with chronic pain conditions.

Prescription opioids are therefore given to these patients as a way to help them cope with their physical state. But because of the highly addictive nature of this type of prescription pain medicine, the Center for Disease Control established stricter guidelines to help physicians prescribe these medications more responsibly and prevent opioid abuse.

Main Types of Opioids

When most people think of opioids, they likely think of one of the most commonly prescribed brands: OxyContin. However, there are several other types of opioids available and different classes of them.

Natural vs. Synthetic Opioids

Natural opioids (also known as opiates) are a type of chemical found in the poppy plant. These chemicals can be extracted to create highly potent opioid drugs, such as morphine or codeine.

Synthetic opioids are the ones made in a lab. They can either be fully synthetic (fentanyl) or derivatives of opiates (oxycodone or hydrocodone).

Illicit vs. Prescription Opioids

Another classification of opioids concerns their legality. Legal or prescription opioids are commonly used to treat chronic and acute pain in patients.

Some drugs a pain management specialist may prescribe include:

  • OxyContin (Oxycodone)
  • Vicodin (Hydrocodone)
  • Fentanyl
  • Morphine
  • Codeine
  • Methadone
  • Tapentadol, etc.

Other opioids are classified as illicit drugs and are not prescribed by doctors. For example, the illegal drug heroin is also a type of opioid and is, in many cases, taken for the same pain relief and pleasure purposes as legal opioids.

Some legal opioids can also be procured on the drug market in different forms, such as fentanyl, a highly addictive drug.

What Are the Side Effects of Opioid Use?

Initially, taking an opioid drug gives a person a pleasant and euphoric effect they may seek to replicate.

However, these positive effects are short-lived, and patients may experience the following side effects:

  • Sleepiness
  • Drowsiness
  • Constipation
  • Nausea


Taking a high dose of opioids also increases the risk of overdosing. Some of the signs of an opioid overdose include:

  • Vomiting
  • Slowed breathing
  • Difficulty with otherwise normal functions (such as speaking and walking)
  • Not waking up even when shaken
  • Dizziness or confusion
  • Respiratory arrest.
  • Withdrawal Symptoms

If someone suddenly stops taking opioids, they may experience an array of uncomfortable symptoms and go through what’s called opioid withdrawal.

In many cases, the symptoms are so severe that a person may try to take another dose to feel relief. But opioid withdrawal can also be fatal, which is why specialists recommend going through a supervised medical detox.

Common symptoms of opioid withdrawal can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Runny nose
  • Insomnia
  • Drowsiness
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Rapid heart rate
  • High blood pressure

Long-Term Use Consequences

Taking opioid drugs for a long time increases a person’s risk for:

  • Opioid Dependence: When someone takes opioids for six months or longer, they can develop a physical dependence on these substances. The body builds up a natural tolerance to opioids.
  • Opioid Misuse: With dependence also comes a higher risk of misusing an opioid drug. Since the body has a higher tolerance, patients may increase their dosage or take them more often than prescribed to get the same pleasant effects.
  • Opioid Addiction: This is when opioid misuse develops a physiological role. People’s bodies still need the drug, but the person also deals with a compulsion to keep using opioid medications to trigger their brain’s reward system.
  • Opioid Use Disorder: The longer an opioid is abused, the higher the risk of developing an opioid use disorder. This, in turn, increases the risk of opioid overdose deaths.These effects can be noticed both by people abusing prescribed opioids and their illicit versions.

Can You Take Opioids Safely?

If a patient is prescribed opioids, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will develop an opioid use disorder.

Though highly addictive, some precautionary measures may help people safely take opioid medications to manage their pain:

1. Considering the Family History

People with a family history of addiction may be at a higher risk of developing an addiction themselves, which is why taking opioids is often not the best solution for them.

Informing a physician of this history or any concern regarding opioid medications helps ensure a patient gets a treatment plan tailored to their specific needs. A family history of addiction doesn’t always mean a person will become addicted to opioids, but it may influence doses or the wider pain therapy plan.

Moreover, if the patient has a history of addiction, doctors will likely recommend alternative therapy to help them cope with their symptoms.

2. Talking to a Pain Management Specialist

Pain specialists can help individuals reduce pain in several ways:

  • Using other medications to relieve pain, such as muscle relaxants or nerve blocks
  • Recommending radiofrequency ablation to stop pain signals from responding to stimulus
  • Implanting a pain pump
  • Alternative therapies, such as massage, acupuncture, or relaxation techniques.

3. Taking as Prescribed Without Fail

Taking opioid drugs only as recommended is one of the best ways to avoid drug abuse. Patients who feel their dosage is not sufficient for them should consult their doctors before taking opioid medications more often.

In these cases, doctors may even recommend some alternative pain relievers instead of upping the opioid dose to prevent addiction.

4. Monitoring Physical Reactions

People should also stay vigilant and see how their bodies respond to opioid drugs, even when prescribed.

Friends and family can also offer their support and monitor their loved ones throughout treatment to spot the early warning signs of dependence or addiction.

5. Quitting With a Plan

Quitting opioids cold turkey can lead to several uncomfortable symptoms and is generally considered dangerous, especially if a person has taken these medications for a long time.

Specialists instead wean off patients by lowering the dose gradually until a person no longer needs the medication. When a person feels they no longer need this pain treatment or want to explore other options, they should discuss it with their doctor and begin a controlled weaning process.

6. Avoiding Other Drugs or Drinking Alcohol

Opioids come with risks of their own, but mixing them with other legal or illegal drugs or even alcohol can pose a significant threat to someone’s well-being.

It increases the risk of substance abuse and addiction and is responsible for many of the drug overdose deaths seen in the opioid crisis. Around 14.7% of opioid deaths between 1999 and 2017 also involved alcohol, while 21% involved Benzodiazepines.

People taking opioids should abstain from such substances and inform their doctors of any other medications they may be taking, prescribed or otherwise.

7. Disposing of Opioids Responsibly

A person taking opioids is not the only one at risk of developing an addiction. These medications must never be left in areas where other people (children, family, or friends) can access them.

If a person no longer needs opioids but still has some pills left, they must be taken back to a physician or a community callback program and disposed of responsibly.

Giving them to a friend or family member is risky, as the lack of doctor supervision when taking these medications can increase their risk of abusing the substance.

Wrapping Up

Whether prescribed or illegal, few other medications prove as addictive as opioids. Even so, they may still be the best chance a person has to manage their pain.

Those struggling with an addiction or currently fighting for sobriety may find solace in the fact that today they have access to a plethora of treatment options that can help them overcome their affliction and lead a healthy, drug-free life.

Curednation joins this fight by helping people access compassionate and quality opioid therapy whenever they need it.

Learn more about our remote service here, or schedule a consultation with one of our specialists today.


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