What are opioids and how do they work?

Prescription opioids are powerful pain-reducing medications. Some prescription opioids are made directly from the opium poppy plant. Others are made by scientists in a laboratory although they have similar chemical structures. 

Opioids attach to and activate opioid receptors located in many areas of the brain, spinal cord, and other organs in the body, especially those involved in feelings of pain and pleasure. 

How do people use opioids?

Prescription opioids are prescribed by doctors to treat pain and other health issues such as controlling coughs and diarrhea. When used as prescribed and for a short time, opioids are relatively safe. But when they are misused, they can be dangerous. 

People misuse opioids by:

  • Taking a prescription in ways other than instructed, like taking more than prescribed, taking it more often, or taking it for more reasons than prescribed. 
  • Getting and using prescription pills from a friend or family member, even if it's for a real medical condition.
  • Taking prescription drugs to get high. 
  • Mixing prescription opioids with alcohol or other drugs.
  • Crushing pills or opening capsules, dissolving the powder in water, injecting the liquid into a vein, or snorting the powder. 

How do opioids affect the brain and make people feel high?

When opioids attach to the receptors in the brain, they block pain signals sent from the brain to the body and release large amounts of dopamine in the brain's reward regions. Dopamine is the chemical responsible for motivating our actions and repeating pleasurable experiences. This release can strongly reinforce the act of taking the drug, making the user want to take the drug again and again despite negative consequences. 

What are the most commonly used prescription opioids?

  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab, and Norco)
  • Oxycodone (Oxycontin and Percocet)
  • Morphine (Kadian and Avinza)
  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl

What are the warning signs of opioid abuse?

Someone struggling with an opioid misuse disorder may not show signs right away. Over time as dependency progresses, there may be some signs that may need help. 

Changes in sleep habits, weight loss, flu-like symptoms, and decreased libido may be physical signs they are struggling with. Changes in the way they act — such as cutting off relationships with family or friends, spending too much money, stealing, changes in exercise habits, or not bathing — may also be signs. Click here for more information on substance use warning signs. 

How long does Heroin stay in your blood?

Heroin remains in the blood for up to six days.

How long does Heroin stay in your urine?

Heroin remains in urine for about three days. 

How does Naloxone (Narcan) work?

Naloxone reverses an opioid overdose. Naloxone works by blocking the effects of opiates on the brain and by restoring breathing. Naloxone will only work if a person has opiates in their system. 

How does it take for Naloxone to work?

Naloxone takes about two to three minutes to take effect. If the person does not wake up in three minutes, bystanders should give a second dose. 

Who Should Use Support Groups

Support groups are offered as a space for individuals to come together and share their stories and experiences. Support groups help individuals realize there are others who may be dealing with similar situations who in turn can help them get better. Click here for support group resources.