What are prescription opioids?
Also known as: oxy, percs, happy pills, hillbilly heroin, OC, or vikes
Prescription opioids usually come in pill form and are given to treat severe pain—for example, pain from surgery or serious injury or pain that results from chronic health conditions like cancer. Opioids are also commonly prescribed to treat other kinds of pain that lasts a long time (chronic pain), but there is little evidence showing they are effective for chronic pain, and some research suggests that they can even make pain worse.
For most people, when opioids are taken as prescribed by a medical professional for a short time, they are relatively safe and can reduce pain effectively. However, dependence (feeling withdrawal symptoms when not taking the drug) and addiction are still potential risks when taking prescription opioids. These risks increase when these medications are misused. Prescription medications are some of the most commonly misused drugs by teens, after tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana.
How are prescription opioids misused?
People misuse prescription opioid medications by taking them in a way that is not intended, such as:
- Taking someone else’s prescription, even if it is for a legitimate medical purpose like relieving pain.
- Taking an opioid medication in a way other than prescribed—for instance, taking more than your prescribed dose or taking it more often, or crushing pills into powder to snort or inject the drug.
- Taking the opioid prescription to get high.
Sometimes people misusing opioids combine them with alcohol or other drugs, which is particularly dangerous. Misusing opioids increases risk for both addiction and overdose.
How do opioids affect the brain?
Opioids attach to specific proteins, called opioid receptors, on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, gut, and other organs. When these drugs attach to their receptors, they block pain messages sent from the body through the spinal cord to the brain. They can also reduce or stop other essential functions like breathing when they attach to opioid receptors in a brain area that controls respiration.
Opioid receptors are also located in the brain’s reward center, where they cause a large release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. This causes a strong feeling of relaxation and euphoria (extreme good feelings). Repeated surges of dopamine in the reward center from drug-taking can lead to addiction.
Other effects of opioids
In addition to pain relief and euphoria, other effects of opioids include:
- nausea (feeling sick to the stomach)
- slowed or stopped breathing.
These medications are not safe to use with alcohol or other medications that also slow breathing, such as depressants, because their combined effects can increase the likelihood of a fatal overdose.
Does misusing prescription opioids lead to heroin use?
Prescription opioids are chemically closely related to heroin, and their effects, especially when misused, can be very similar. Because heroin may be cheaper to get, people who have become addicted to prescription pain medications sometimes switch to using heroin. Nearly 80 percent of people addicted to heroin started first with prescription opioids. However, the transition to heroin use from prescription opioids is still rare; only about 4 percent of people who misuse prescription opioids use heroin.
Can you become addicted to prescription opioids?
Yes, prescription opioids can be addictive. People who misuse prescription opioids are at greater risk of becoming addicted to opioids than people who take them as prescribed by a doctor, but patients taking opioids as prescribed for a period of several weeks or more may develop a dependence to the drug, in which they feel unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when not taking it.
Opioid withdrawal can cause:
- muscle and bone pain
- sleep problems
- vomiting (throwing up)
- cold flashes with goosebumps (“cold turkey”)
- involuntary leg movements
Dependence is not the same as addiction, but in some cases it can contribute to developing an addiction.
Carefully following the doctor’s instructions for taking a medication can make it less likely that someone will develop dependence or addiction, because the medication is prescribed in amounts and forms that are considered appropriate for that person.
Doctors should always weigh the risks of opioid dependence and addiction against the benefits of the medication, and patients should communicate any issues or concerns to their doctor as soon as they arise. The earlier a problem is identified, the better the chances are for long term recovery.
Can you die if you misuse prescription opioids?
Yes. In fact, taking just 1 large dose could cause the body to stop breathing. In 2015, opioid medications resulted in nearly 23,000 deaths in the United States. If you compare it to 2001, when 5,500 people died from an overdose of opioid pain relievers, you can see how dramatically deaths have increased in the last decade. Among young people, males are much more likely to overdose from opioid abuse than are females.
The risk for overdose and death are increased when opioids are combined with alcohol or other drugs, especially depressants such as benzodiazepines (e.g. Xanax).
Signs of Overdose
Signs of a possible overdose are:
- slow breathing
- blue lips and fingernails
- cold damp skin
- vomiting or gurgling noise
People who are showing symptoms of overdose need immediate medical help—call 911. A drug called naloxone can be used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and prevent death if it is given in time. Naloxone is an opioid antagonist, which means that it binds to the opioid receptors and blocks their effects.
Naloxone, which is available as a nasal spray or in an easy-to-use-autoinjector, is often carried by emergency first responders, including police officers and emergency medical services. In some states, doctors can now prescribe naloxone to people who misuse opioids or to their family members, so that in the event of an overdose, it can be given immediately without waiting for emergency personnel (who may not arrive in time). Read more about how Naloxone Saves Lives.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Underlying Cause of Death 1999-2014 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released 2015. Available here.