HomeHEALTHOpioids: What They Are, Signs of Addiction, and Preventing Overdose

Opioids: What They Are, Signs of Addiction, and Preventing Overdose

Opioids are a class of medication that helps with pain management. When used properly, they can provide pain relief for medical issues such as surgery, cancer treatment, and childbirth. But opioids are also very addictive and are often misused. With the opioid epidemic affecting communities across the country, it is important to stay informed so that we can make a difference.

Below, we’ll explain what opioids are, how to recognize the symptoms of addiction, and how to prevent an overdose.

What are opioids?

Opioids define a class of drugs that are similar to opium, a drug found naturally in the poppy plant. You may also hear them referred to as narcotics to distinguish them from over-the-counter pain relievers. Some opioid drugs are derived from opium in the poppy, while others are synthetic versions of the substance.

When opioids are used correctly as prescribed by a doctor, they can provide relief for moderate to severe pain. But when they are misused or overused, opioids can make pain worse over time and become addictive.

Medical Uses of Opioids

Prescription opioids, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, are often prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain. But they also have other medical uses, including anesthesia, suppressing diarrhea or cough, replacement therapy for opioid use disorder or opioid withdrawal, and reversing an opioid overdose.

How long do opioids stay in your system?

The length of time an opioid is detectable in your system depends on a few factors, including frequency of drug use and the type of opioid. Short-lasting opiates like codeine can stay in your system for a few days, but longer-lasting opioids like methadone can stay in your system for up to a week.

It also depends on which test is being used to detect the presence of opioids. After last use, opioids can be detected in saliva for between 24-48 hours, in blood for about a day, in urine for up to three days and in your hair for up to 90 days.

types of opioids

There are certain types of opioids, including synthetic opioids, prescription pain relievers, and illegal drugs.

prescription opioids

Prescription opioids are often prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain and are safe to use for short periods of time when prescribed by a doctor. But they can be misused and have serious risks and side effects such as addiction. Some of the most common prescription opioids are:

  • morphine
  • codeine
  • hydrocodone
  • oxycodone

synthetic opioid

Many prescription opioids are synthetic opioids. Synthetic opioids are created in a laboratory but target the same areas of the brain as natural opioids. Fentanyl is the best-known synthetic opioid, and it is many times more potent than other opioids. It is used to treat severe pain in advanced cancer stages. Other synthetic opioids include:

  • pethidine
  • levorphenol
  • methadone
  • Tramadol
  • dextropropoxyphene

Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids that are being made illegally and distributed as a street drug are also on the rise across the United States and are driving the opioid epidemic.

illegal opioids

Heroin, counterfeit prescription opioids, and other recreational drugs laced with fentanyl are all illegal opioids. They are some of the most dangerous drugs because you are not always sure what you are getting, which can lead to overdose and death.

opioid epidemic

The United States is in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic. Since 1999, hundreds of thousands of people have died from overdoses involving opioids. But the problem has gotten significantly worse over the past few years, with the number of opioid-related deaths rising by nearly 30%. And in the state of Minnesota alone, opioid deaths have increased by 35% since 2020.

Park Nicollet and HealthPartners on opioids by asking our physicians to prescribe fewer pain relievers, making presentations on this topic to our peers in other health care systems, and even influencing state medical licensing boards to change their stance on opioids Working to reduce the misuse of We are proud to lead in helping our patients and community find the safest, most effective pain relievers.

opioid addiction and dependence

Anyone who takes opioids may be at risk for addiction or opioid dependence. Knowing how opioids work can help us better understand opioid addiction.

Opioids are highly addictive because they activate powerful reward centers in your brain that trigger the release of endorphins. These endorphins can reduce your perception of pain and increase feelings of pleasure. When an opioid dose wears off, many people want to regain that feeling as quickly as possible, which is often the first sign of potential opioid addiction.

How does opioid addiction happen?

It’s impossible to know who will fall victim to opioid addiction. Genetic, psychological and environmental factors can all play a role in addiction. Some known risk factors for opioid addiction include:

  • young age
  • living in poverty
  • job loss or other stressful situations
  • severe depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns
  • History of drug, alcohol or tobacco abuse
  • history of criminal activity or legal problems
  • contact with high-risk people or environments
  • risk-taking or adventure-seeking behavior

The symptoms of opioid addiction can present themselves in different ways depending on the individual. If you or someone you love has experienced at least two of the following in the past year, it may be a sign of opioid addiction.

  • more medication is needed to produce the desired effect
  • craving opioids
  • unable to meet obligations at work, school, or home
  • interpersonal problems with family, friends, or co-workers because of opioid use
  • not participating in activities you once enjoyed because of opioid use
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms or taking opioids to avoid withdrawal

opioid use disorder

You may hear opioid use disorder referred to as opioid abuse, opioid dependence, or opioid addiction. Like other substance use disorders, opioid use disorder is a chronic lifelong condition. Someone with opioid use disorder may need different levels of treatment at different times.

For treatment to be effective, opioid use disorder often requires ongoing care, including:

  • personalized treatment plans
  • access to drugs
  • behavioral interventions from trained professionals
  • long-term outpatient treatment and counseling
  • Recovery Support Services, Peer Groups and Other Support

opioid withdrawal

When opioid users suddenly stop using, they can experience severe opioid withdrawal symptoms, including pain, chills, cramps, diarrhea, dilated pupils, restlessness, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, and very intense cravings. Because opioid withdrawal symptoms are so severe, it can be extremely difficult for users to quit without help or medication-assisted treatment.

opioid overdose

An opioid overdose can be identified by dilated pupils, fainting, and difficulty breathing. if you:

  • have opioid use disorder
  • inject opioids
  • start taking opioids again after a prolonged recovery period
  • use opioids with other drugs or alcohol
  • have HIV, liver disease, lung disease, or a mental health condition

preventing an opioid overdose

Naloxone (Narcan or Evzio) is a potentially life-saving drug used to quickly reverse an opioid overdose. It can be administered via injection or as a nasal spray, and is used to block the effects opioids have. It can also help someone with an opioid overdose return to normal breathing if it has slowed or stopped as a result of the overdose.

opioid addiction treatment

Visiting your primary care doctor is also a good place to start getting help. They can refer you to appropriate care, which may include getting help from an addiction medicine specialist, an addiction recovery program, or visiting a HealthPartner pain management clinic in the Twin Cities metro. Managing chronic pain without opioids is more than possible.

Crisis text line if you need immediate assistance Offers free, 24/7 texting services with a compassionate counselor. Text HOME to 741741.

Or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4375) for 24/7 confidential support and guidance.

You can also find a treatment facility near you through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,



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