Opioids: Overview

Opioids are highly addictive natural and man-made drugs that relax the body and can relieve pain. This class of drugs includes codeine, fentanyl, heroin, hydrocodone, morphine, and oxycodone. Overdoses and death may result from the nonmedical use of opioids.  

Drug facts

What you need to know to protect your health and safety.  

Prescription opioids

What are prescription opioids? 

Prescription opioids are used to treat pain. They interact with nerve cells to relieve pan and produce pleasurable effects.  

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?

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

  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dry mouth
  • Sleepiness
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Itching
  • Sweating

Long-term use of prescription opioids can cause some people to develop a tolerance. This means they need higher and/or more frequent doses of the drug to get the desired effects. This can happen even when taking the drug as directed by a medical professional. 

Drug dependence can occur with repeated use of the same drug. You are dependent on a drug when you are unable to live without it. You feel sick when you go without the drug or try to stop using. Dependence on a prescription opioid is a serious health condition. Medical support may be needed to stop taking the drug. 

Addiction can occur without being dependent on a drug. Addiction is a chronic disease in which you can not control your desire to use a drug. You continue to use the drug despite harmful consequences. An addiction to opioids can be treated. People can and do recover. 

What should I talk about with my medical professional?

  • Share information about past or current alcohol and drug use.
  • Share information about all medications and supplements you are taking. Use this table. (PDF)
  • Ask about risks and benefits of taking prescription opioids with your doctor.
  • Ask about other ways to manage your pain.  

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 the 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 for pain management

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.

Know the signs of a problem

Anyone who uses opioids is at risk for opioid use disorder. This is health condition that can be treated. Learn the symptoms.  

Related topics

Last Revised: November 19, 2018