What are opioids?
Opioids are “narcotic” drugs that relieve pain by decreasing the intensity of pain signals that reach the brain. They can also affect regions of the brain that control breathing and emotion. Opioids can be prescribed by doctors to treat pain and diarrhea, put people to sleep, and repress cough. Opioids include prescription medications such as oxycodone (OxyContin®), morphine, fentanyl, codeine, methadone, buprenorphine, and hydrocodone (Vicodin®). They also include illicit substances such as heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl and fentanyl analogs.
The effects of opioids can create a general sense of well-being and decrease anxiety, aggression, and tension. While these attributes may be helpful in a therapeutic setting, they can contribute to opioid misuse (used not as prescribed) and produce undesired effects such as apathy, difficulty concentrating, and drowsiness. Both the pain relief and harmful effects of opioids become more noticeable with larger doses of an opioid. The regular use of opioids can cause psychological dependence and increase a person’s tolerance to the drug. Misuse of prescription and/or illicit opioids can result in a substance use disorder (SUD).
Learn more by downloading the DEA’s Drug Fact Sheet (PDF).
Opioids can be found in different forms.
Opioids can come in
various forms including capsules, tablets, powder, liquid, chunks in different
colors, lollipops, and syrups. They can be used by sniffing,
smoking, injecting, or swallowing/ingesting. Other forms include rectal
suppositories and skin patches. Learn more by downloading the DEA’s Drugs of Abuse (PDF).
|Fentanyl is an extremely potent opioid. It is a tablet or powder that can be smoked, snorted/sniffed, injected, or ingested orally. Fentanyl can be sold by itself or in combination with drugs. Illicit fentanyl can be added to other substances such as heroin and counterfeit pills to make them cheaper, more addictive, and more powerful. The likelihood of a fatal overdose increases when fentanyl is combined with another drug. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl has driven the increase in overdose deaths that involve synthetic opioids. Fentanyl test strips can be used to tell if a drug contains fentanyl.
|Heroin is a brownish or white powder, or a black sticky substance typically known as “black tar heroin.” It can be snorted, smoked, or injected. Street heroin is often mixed, “cut,” with other drugs such as fentanyl or substances such as starch, sugar, or powdered milk.
|Hydromorphone is legally manufactured in the United States and can be prescribed by a doctor, commonly as Dilaudid®. Hydromorphone can be acquired illegally from forged prescriptions, from acquaintances or friends, or stolen from pharmacies. It is typically ingested in capsules and tablets. Tablets can also be crushed or dissolved to create injectable solutions.
|Methadone is a synthetic opioid that can be legally used with a doctor’s prescription to treat pain or opioid use disorder. It can be taken as an oral solution, tablet, or injectable liquid.
|Morphine comes from opium and is a non-synthetic narcotic used to treat pain. It can be injected or taken orally in capsules and tablets. Common brand names and generic products of morphine include MS-Contin®, Oramorph SR®, MSIR®, Roxanol®, and RMS®.
|Oxycodone is prescribed on its own as OxyContin® and in combination products, such as Percoset®. It can be taken orally in tablet form or injected intravenously after a tablet is crushed and dissolved in water. Powder from a crushed tablet can also be snorted/sniffed. Oxycodone can be inhaled by heating a tablet and placing it on a piece of foil.
|Opium is extracted from Papave somniferum, a poppy plant, and it is a source for many opioids such as heroin, codeine, and morphine. Opium comes in solid, powder, or liquid form. It can be ingested orally, smoked, or intravenously injected.