Quick Facts

Frequently Asked Questions about Opioids

What is an opioid?

Opioids are a class of medication that include the illegal drug heroin, and legal synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, as well as pain relievers such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, morphine and others. These drugs are legally accessible through a prescription from a health care provider.

What are they used for?

Opioid-based medications, when used correctly under a health care provider's direction, are highly effective pain relievers. However, you should be very careful when using opioids, even under your doctor’s supervision, as misusing prescription opioids can lead to dangerous risks of dependence and addiction.

What is prescription drug addiction and how is it driving the opioid epidemic?

Prescription drug addiction occurs when someone either continues to self-medicate with a prescription drug beyond the prescribed use of the medicine, or when someone not prescribed the drug obtains and uses it recreationally.

The initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, but can lead to changes in the brain that create addiction and challenge an addicted person’s self-control by interfering with their ability to resist intense urges to take drugs.

As people use opioids repeatedly, their tolerance increases and they may not be able to maintain the source for the drugs. This can cause them to turn to the black market for these drugs and even switch from prescription drugs to cheaper and more risky substitutes like heroin. These substances vary in purity and strength, which increases the risk of serious medical complications or overdose.

How is opioid dependence treated?

Treatments for opioid abuse and addiction include medicines, counseling and behavioral therapies and residential and hospital-based programs. Treatment often includes medication assisted treatment (MAT) which is a combined psychotherapy and medication treatment. Established research validates that MAT is a highly effective approach.

How long does it take to recover from opioid dependence?

Recovery from opioid dependence is a long-term process, and relapses can be expected for some people along the way.

What are the common causes of opioid dependence?

Most people are first introduced to opioids through a medical professional providing treatment for pain relief. Commonly, patients seeking care after back surgery, dental work, an emergency room visit for extreme pain associated with a broken bone, or minor car accident are prescribed opioids.

Why are some people more susceptible to opioid addiction?

Nobody is quite sure why one person becomes addicted to opioids and not another. Typically, opioids produce pain relief, which is good after surgery. However, opioids create a pleasurable effect some people opioids. For example, caffeine is a reinforcing drug. People like the effects. That is true for about 80 percent of the adult population in the U.S.

But, some people avoid caffeine because it makes them jittery or anxious. Early in the process of opioid use, people may take it because of the pleasurable effect, and some people actually don’t like the effect of an opioid and may go on to avoid them. If you take an opioid and your pain is gone, and you find yourself saying, “I feel really good,” it may be a warning sign that you are vulnerable to misusing these medications.

That good effect diminishes over time for people who like how an opioid makes them feel. Many people take more opioids because they hope to get that good feeling. They also don’t want to go through withdrawal.