What Are Opiates?

OpiatesAccording to the online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an opiate is “a drug (as morphine or codeine) containing or derived from opium and tending to induce sleep and alleviate pain.”  The term “opiate” today is often associated with illegal drugs such as heroin, but legally prescribed opiates, used as painkillers, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone also create devastating addictions that are both mentally and physically difficult to overcome.  The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) reports that non-medical use of painkillers is the second most common form of illicit drug use in the United States.

For Which Purpose Opiates is used?

When used properly, opioids, or legal narcotics, are analgesics…they are used to relieve pain.  When used as intended, opioids are effective at pain management and rarely cause addiction.  Some common opioid analgesics are hydrocodone or Vicodin, oxycodone or OxyContin, morphine, fentanyl, codeine, meperidine (Demerol), hydromorphone (Diluadid), and propoxyphene (Darvon).

When these drugs are taken by someone other than the intended person or are not taken as prescribed, they can result in addiction.  Often these drugs are taken in excessive quantities or crushed in order to snort them, which allows the medication to be immediately absorbed by the body.

The effects of opioids are numerous and include drowsiness, slowed breathing, constipation, and if taken in excess, they can cause death.  Opioids should never be combined with alcohol, benzodiazepines (benzos), barbiturates, or antihistamines because these also cause breathing to slow, which if combined with other opioid products, could lead to life-threatening respiratory depression.

Patients who use opioids for too long can become dependent on them physically, which is different than becoming addicted to them.  When this happens, the patient will need more of the drug to get the same pain-relieving effects, and if the patient stops taking the medication too quickly, they may have physical withdrawal symptoms such as cold flashes, insomnia, bone pain, and vomiting.  This physical dependence may lead to abuse and addiction or craving for the drug.

For more information on the most common narcotics or opioids that Mission Treatment can help with, please click on a link to the left.


National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDA InfoFacts: Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications, June 2009