Opioids are a type of drug that can help block pain. For example, your doctor may prescribe an opioid to help manage low back pain or arthritis, or when you break a bone or have surgery. Though opioids can be helpful medicine, they also can be dangerous.
Common prescription opioids:
Codeine (Tylenol #3 or #4)
Fentanyl (Duragesic, Actiq)
Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Norco, Lortab, Lorcet)
Morphine (MS Contin, Kadian)
Oxycodone (Percocet, Oxycontin)
Illegal opioids: heroin & fetanyl
Heroin is a highly-addictive opioid drug processed from morphine that is extracted from the seed pod of certain poppy plants. Pure heroin is a white powder with a bitter taste that can be snorted or smoked. Impure heroin (due to crude processing methods) is usually dissolved, diluted, and injected into veins, muscles, or under the skin.
Pharmaceutical fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It is prescribed for treating severe pain, often for cancer, in the form of transdermal patches or lozenges.
Fentanyl that is illegally made and sold is linked to recent cases of overdose and death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Illicitly made fentanyl is often mixed with heroin and/or cocaine to increase its euphoric effects. Users may or may not know they are using a drug that contains fentanyl.
Risks of addiction
Opioids help people manage pain and recovery. But they do have risks. Here are four of the biggest dangers:
Taking them too long
Opioids can become addictive within just five days for some people. Once dependent, the body needs more of the drug to get the same effect, which leads many people to take the drug too often or to take more than they should.
Taking opioids with alcohol
Opioids should never be combined with alcohol. Doing so is extremely dangerous and increases the risk of death.
Some drugs can cause dangerous interactions when mixed with opioids, especially those that cause drowsiness. Learn more about risks of combining drugs in the section below.
Moving to a more dangerous drug
Over time, prescription opioid addiction can lead to trying a stronger drug, like heroin. Heroin is an illegal drug made from morphine. It has an effect similar to prescription opioids and can be deadly if overused.
Risks of combining drugs with opioids
When opioids are combined with other substances, the risk for overdose increases. In 2019, 91% of overdose deaths in Maricopa County, Arizona, involved more than one drug. 92% of these multi-drug deaths were accidental.