Dose of Reality: Get the Facts on Opioids

Wisconsin's opioid epidemic began more than 20 years ago. It started with the overprescribing of prescription pain relievers. When these drugs became harder to get by those who craved them for nonmedical use, heroin use increased. Heroin was more available and cheaper. Today, opioids illegally manufactured and mixed with other drugs are causing the most damage to our families and communities. Help the people in your life understand the dangers of opioid use by getting the facts for yourself.


Two people in conversation holding hands

What are opioids?

Opioids are a class of legal and illegal drugs that produce a pleasurable effect on the brain and body, although the effect is different for each person who uses opioids. Opioids are used in many ways. A health care professional may prescribe them as part of a treatment plan following an injury or surgery. Opioids also may be used in nonmedical ways. Some people may use opioids to cope with painful emotions, trauma, or other life experiences.

  • Prescription pain relievers: Prescription opioids include oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and methadone that relieve pain by changing the way the brain and body feel pain. They don't cure the pain, but they help a person manage it.
  • Fentanyl: There are two types of fentanyl: pharmaceutical fentanyl and illegally manufactured fentanyl. Pharmaceutical fentanyl is prescribed by doctors to treat severe pain. Illegally manufactured fentanyl is sold for its heroin-like effect. 
  • Heroin: Heroin is an illegal opioid. There are no medical uses for heroin. Heroin can be found in both pure form and laced with other drugs.

Why are opioids dangerous?

All types of opioids are addictive. The brain and body develop a tolerance to opioids very quickly, meaning more amounts are needed to feel the same effect. This may rapidly become dependence, meaning that not taking opioids may cause discomfort because opioids are no longer in the brain and body. This leads some people to crave opioids more and more, a cycle that can lead to an opioid use disorder. An opioid use disorder occurs when opioid use interferes with daily life. This may include challenges at home, at work, at school, or in relationships. Anyone who uses opioids can develop an opioid use disorder. It is a chronic disease that can be managed. Taking too many opioids at one time can cause a person to stop breathing and die. 

What are the common signs of an opioid use disorder?

  • Unexplained changes in behavior, such as attitude, appetite, mood swings, sleep patterns, and irritability.
  • Sudden changes in activities, such as friends or social activities or sudden shifts in jobs or hobbies.
  • Engaging in secretive behaviors, such as hiding whereabouts or new friends.



Laced with fentanyl and lethal

People all over Wisconsin are unknowingly taking drugs laced with fentanyl and overdosing because the drugs look identical to what they are used to seeing. The difference they can't see, smell, or taste is illegally manufactured fentanyl. A dose of fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and up to 100 times stronger than morphine. Every person is different, but two salt-sized grains of fentanyl can be enough to cause an adult to overdose. Fentanyl overdoses are often fatal. 

Illegally manufactured fentanyl is distributed in many forms, including powder and liquid.

  • Illegally manufactured powdered fentanyl looks like many other drugs. It is commonly mixed with cannabis, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine and made into pills that are made to resemble prescription drugs. The blending of fentanyl is inconsistent and completely random, making all drugs purchased from illegal sellers a risk. One dose may not contain fentanyl, while another dose may contain it—even though both come from the same supplier.
  • Illegally manufactured liquid fentanyl can be found in counterfeit nasal sprays, counterfeit eye drops, and dropped onto paper or small candies. 

What should you ask your health care professional before taking opioids? 

Prescription pain relievers should be used with caution. Ask your health care professional these questions when getting a prescription for an opioid.

  • Why do I need this drug?
  • What are the most common side effects of this drug? Are there ways to minimize these effects?
  • Are there ways to lower the dosage or length of time that I need this drug?
  • How long should I take this opioid and how do I wean myself off this drug?
  • How should I store this drug to prevent others from taking it?
  • Does this opioid interact with any other drug I’m currently taking?
  • Can I drink alcohol while taking this drug?
  • Do any of my medical conditions increase my risk of a bad reaction to this drug?
  • What should I do with leftover doses of this drug?
  • Can I share this drug with someone else?
  • What if I have a history of misusing drugs?
  • What if there’s a history of substance use disorder in my family?

Prescription opioids are not the only option for pain management. An over-the-counter pain reliever may be enough. Other options, like acupuncture, cognitive behavioral therapy, chiropractic care, yoga, massage therapy, meditation and relaxation, and physical therapy can also help you feel better with fewer risks and side effects. Discuss these options with your health care professional to determine if they will work for you.


Get the conversation started

You can do this. You have the facts and are ready to start having real talks with the people in your life about opioids. It’s easier than you think. We can show you how to get started.

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Last Revised: February 4, 2022