What Are Opioids? Side Effects & Dangers of Using Opioids

With their well-known potency and the inherent risks that come with them, opioids are sure to spark heated discussions whenever they are brought up. But, before taking sides in any such discussion, let’s make sure you know the precise answer to the ‘what are opioids’ question. 

Therefore, this article will provide detailed information on what opioids are, how they work, and what their side effects are. Keep reading to learn more!

What Are Opioids? 

Opioids are a class of drugs prescribed for treating persistent and/or severe pain. They are also referred to as narcotics and must be prescribed by medical professionals, so  it is not possible to purchase them over the counter. 

Additionally, some illegal substances are also categorized as opioids and belong to the same drug class due to their capacity for pain relief. 

The most common reasons for using opioids include:

  • Chronic pain of all sorts, such as headaches and backaches
  • Pain that results from:
    • Surgery
    • Cancer
    • Accidental injuries

Opioids work by binding to specific so-called opioid receptors in the brain, gut, spinal cord, and other parts of the body. When the opioid attaches to opioid receptors, this binding results in blocking the pain signals sent from the body through the spinal cord to the brain. All opioids, regardless of their derivation type, have a similar mechanism of action

Common Opioid Medication 

The common opioid medications include opioids of all types of derivation—natural, semi-synthetic, and synthetic. The most commonly used opioids include: 

  • Percocet (contained in medications such as Oxycodone and OxyContin), also known as Percs, is a powerful opioid usually prescribed for treating moderate to severe pain. It is legal when prescribed by healthcare providers, but it can still cause opioid addiction.
  • Hydrocodone (contained in Vicodin and Norco), called Vikes and Hydros, is also used for pain treatment and is legal when prescribed. In Vicodin, this substance is combined with acetaminophen and poses a high risk for opioid dependence. 
  • Morphine, also known as M, Miss Emma, and Morpho, is most commonly used in hospitals for severe pain treatment of patients who are recovering from surgery or going through cancer treatment/palliative care. 
  • Heroin, also called Smack, H, and Dope, is an illegal morphine derivative. It is known as one of the most addictive and dangerous drugs and poses the highest risk of opioid abuse. 
  • Fentanyl, also known as China White, Tango & Cash, and Apache, is available on prescription but is also often illicitly manufactured. It is one of the strongest painkillers but also one of the most dangerous ones. 

Side Effects of Using Opioids 

Side effects of using opioids include both physical and psychological symptoms. The severity of side effects may vary depending on the type of opioid, dosage, and individual characteristics.

Physical side effects include: 

  • Sleepiness
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Shallow breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Slowed heart rate 
  • Loss of consciousness

Mental side effects include but are not limited to: 

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety 
  • Euphoria
  • Confusion 
  • Mood swings 

While opioids are usually highly effective for pain management when prescribed in adequate dosages in a defined timeframe, they also carry significant health risks even when they are not misused. 

Dangers of Using Opioids 

There are many dangers of using opioids, particularly when they are not used under medical supervision. While the most serious danger is death as a result of an overdose or respiratory depression, addiction is by far the most common danger, followed by all of the devastating consequences it entails. 

Developing an opioid addiction may happen even when the drug is used in prescribed doses because the body builds tolerance to the substance and causes strong cravings. It is essential to understand that at the core of opioid addiction lies a physical disbalance upon which psychological and mental effects are built. 

Luckily, modern approaches to treating addiction, such as the ANR treatment, offer highly effective solutions to such issues. However, it’s still important to acknowledge that preventing addiction is still easier than curing it. 

Final Thoughts

Given all of the benefits and risks associated with opioids, it is safe to conclude that using them in any situation requires extreme caution. To underline this, let’s summarize this extensive answer to the “what are opioids” question by remembering the following:

  • Opioids are a class of drugs primarily used for pain management. 
  • Percocet, hydrocodone, heroin, morphine, and fentanyl are the most commonly used opioids. 
  • Death is the most serious danger related to opioid use, but so is the possibility of developing opioid addiction, which can have equally devastating consequences.