Opioids: Overview

Opioids are powerful natural and man-made drugs like heroin, oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, codeine, and fentanyl. Many are used as pain relievers, but they can be addictive. They can also be deadly if taken in high doses, taken in combination with other drugs, or given to people with certain pre-existing medical conditions. The misuse and abuse of opioids is a public health crisis (PDF) in Wisconsin. Addressing this crisis is a priority of Governor Scott Walker and the Department of Health Services.

Drug Facts

Death and disability from the misuse and abuse of opioids can be reduced through learning more about these drugs, their impacts, and ways to protect and promote health and safety.

Prescription Opioids

What are prescription opioids? 

Prescription opioids are used to treat pain. These drugs bind to receptors in the brain or body to reduce the intensity of pain signals reaching the brain.

Medication Generic Names Brand Names
Codeine Various brand names; often combined with acetaminophen and aspirin
Hydrocodone Vicodin®, Lortab®, Lorcet®


Duragesic®, Actiq®, Sublimaze®
Oxycodone OxyContin®, Percodan®, Percocet®
Oxymorphone Opana®
Meperidine Demoral®
Methadone Dolophine®
Morphine Kadian®, Avinza®, MS Contin®, Duramorph®, Roxanol®

What are the risks from prescription opioids?

Prescription opioids can cause people to stop breathing and die, especially at higher dosages or when combined with alcohol or other medications. They also are highly addictive.

Even when taken as directed, prescription opioids can have a number of side effects, including:

  • Tolerance, or the need to take more of the medication for the same pain relief
  • Physical dependence or symptoms of withdrawal when the medication is stopped
  • Increased sensitivity to pain
  • Constipation
  • Nausea, vomiting, and dry mouth
  • Sleepiness and dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Low levels of testosterone that can result in lower sex drive, energy, and strength
  • Itching and sweating

What should I talk about with my medical professional?

Making an informed decision about the use of prescription opioids ensures these drugs are used only when they are likely to be effective and the harms are minimized.

  • Tell your doctor about past or current alcohol and drug use.
  • Tell your doctor about all medications and supplements you are taking to prevent any dangerous side effects. Use this table. (PDF)
  • Discuss the risks and benefits of taking prescription opioids with your doctor.
  • Discuss with your doctor pain treatment options that do not involve prescription opioids. Some of these options may work better and have fewer risks and side effects: over-the-counter pain medications, cognitive behavioral therapy, physical therapy, exercise, and other treatments like massage or chiropractic. 

What steps should I take if I'm prescribed opioids?

  • Use them only as instructed by your doctor. Never take prescription opioids in greater amounts or more often than prescribed. If the medication isn't working, talk to your doctor.
  • Consult your doctor before using prescription opioids with other drugs.
    • Alcohol (beer, wine, and liquor)
    • Antihistamines (allergy medications like Benadryl®)
    • Barbiturates and benzodiazepines (often used as sleeping pills and sedatives; examples include Ambien®, Xanax®, and Valium®)
    • Cough medicine/cough syrup
    • General anesthetics (often used for surgery)
  • Talk with your doctor about any and all side effects and concerns.
  • Store prescription opioids in a locked location and out of reach of others. Never sell or share prescription opioids.
  • Dispose of unused prescription opioids as soon as possible to limit the possibility of illegal use. Find a free drug-take back site near you.


What is heroin?

Heroin is illegal to possess, distribute, and use. It is a white or brown powder or a black sticky substance. It can be injected, snorted, sniffed, or smoked. Most users report a rush of good feelings immediately after taking it.

What are risks of using heroin?

Heroin is very addictive.

Major health problems from heroin use include death from overdose, collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, constipation and gastrointestinal cramping, pneumonia, and liver or kidney disease. People who inject the drug also risk getting infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.

Regular use of heroin can lead to tolerance. This means users need more and more drug to have the same effect. At higher doses over time, the body becomes dependent on heroin. If dependent users stop taking heroin, they have withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, diarrhea and vomiting, and cold flashes with goose bumps.

Pure heroin is rare. Most heroin is mixed with toxins that can clog blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain, causing permanent damage to vital organs, and even death.

What are the signs of heroin use?

  • People on heroin may think and move slowly.
  • People on heroin may seem sleepy or act like they are in a dream.
  • People on heroin may have small pupils.
  • People who inject the drug will have marks on their skin where the needle went in.

What can be done to prevent heroin use?

Research suggests abuse of prescription opioids may lead to heroin use. Some people report switching to heroin because it is cheaper and easier to get than prescription opioids.

To prevent heroin use, take steps to prevent prescription opioid abuse.

  • Talk with your family and friends about the dangers of taking prescription opioids not prescribed for them.
  • Store your prescription opioids in a secure place.
  • Dispose of unwanted, unused prescription opioids at local drug take-back collection sites.
Know Your Options

Although prescription opioids can be effective at treating certain types of pain, there are different treatment options and therapies available. Get the facts on other options for pain management.



Anyone Can Develop a Problem with Opioids

If you can't stop taking an opioid even if you want to, or if the urge to use opioids is too strong to control, even if you know the opioid is causing harm, you may have a health condition known as opioid use disorder. Ask yourself:

  • Did you ever try to stop or cut down on your opioid usage, but couldn't?
  • Have you ever used an opioid without knowing what it was or what it would do to you?
  • Have you ever made mistakes at work or school because you were using an opioid?
  • Does the thought of running out of opioids scare you?
  • Have you ever stolen opioids, or stolen to pay for opioids?
  • Have you ever been arrested or hospitalized because of your opioid use?
  • Have you ever overdosed on opioids? Has using opioids hurt your relationships with other people?

If the answer to some or all of these questions is yes, you might have an opioid use disorder. It can happen to people of all ages, from all backgrounds.

Treatment is Effective. Recovery is Possible.

Opioid use disorder is a health condition that can be successfully treated. Medications are available to reduce drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms. These medications often are combined with counseling to help people regain control in their lives. Ongoing support is available to help people maintain healthy habits. 

Last Revised: September 10, 2018