Opiates (A complete guide)


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Page last updated: 20/11/2022


What are opiates?

Opiates are prescription drugs containing substances that are found in opium, a chemical found naturally in plants and poppy seeds.

This class of drugs, also commonly referred to as opiate painkillers, are used to treat acute pain in patients with a variety of conditions.

Because of their calming effects, opiate based painkillers have a high rate of abuse and are very addictive in the United States.

In the United States alone, approximately 259 million prescriptions for opiate painkillers were written in 2012.

The following year, approximately two million people became addicted to opiates.

After a person experiences a severe injury, recovers from major surgery or gets their wisdom teeth removed they are more often than not going to be given a prescription for opiates.

Patients are given a prescription and a specific dose of the drug from the physician, who prescribes it with the assumption that the patient will take the medication as directed and will not abuse the drug.

However, as patients take opiates more frequently, they build up a higher tolerance for the drug and will believe that they require higher doses of the same drug or more frequent doses of the same drug to ease their pain.

Along with this increase in dosage comes a physical dependence on the drug, These cravings for the drug can become dangerous and create a problematic situation for the person who is now dependent on opiates. 

When drug-seeking behavior is completely out of control and begins to endanger a person’s physical and mental health, they may start to develop signs of an addiction to opiates.

Addiction is more than just a strong desire to use drugs-it manifests as more of a need for the drug and causes suffering for the person when they do not have the desired drug [in this case, the opiate] in their system.

Oftentimes, a person who struggles with opiate abuse wants to quit but is unable to do so on their own.

One of the most effective ways to overcome an addiction is to seek treatment in an inpatient rehabilitation center. 

What are the different types of opiates?

Opiates are limited in use to the indications for which they are prescribed.

There are two main classifications of this type of drug: antagonists and agonists.

Despite its powerful effects, other classes of drugs such as naltrexone and naloxone are considered less addictive than agonists.

Agonists mimic the effects of endorphins naturally in the body and produce opiate effects by interacting with specific receptor sites in the brain.

Agonists include drugs such as morphine and fentanyl, which are widely used in medical settings and have very strong side effects.

Most prescription drugs that are a part of this category have high levels of abuse and addiction.

Other models of agonists include hydrocodone, oxycodone and buprenorphine.

Opiates (A complete guide)

The list below includes some of the most common opiate agonists:


Designed to reduce mild to moderate cough, codeine is less potent than any other opiates that can be found.

Codeine is often available in other drugs that are prescribed by a physician, such as Tylenol with Codeine.

Codeine is highly addictive and even when used for pain can place people who take it at high risk of dependency. 

Darvocet / Darvon

Although currently banned by the FDA, Darvocet and Darvon are propoxyphene based painkillers, which have caused thousands of hospitalizations and deaths for senior citizens.

Although these two drugs are no longer in production under the regulations of the FDA, there is still an underground market for these two drugs.

This is particularly dangerous because it places the person purchasing either of these drugs at risk of buying something that might be laced with another drug, which could be a potentially lethal combination. 


A drug for equal treatment of acute pain, Demerol is often administered in a small amount. It’s often prescribed in small amounts because it is a highly addictive medication.

Demerol is another name for meperidine, which has euphoric effects that are quite similar to morphine. 


Dilaudid is a very powerful pain reliever, often given in an inpatient hospital setting.

Although it is available in tablet formulation for outpatient care as well, dilaudid induced seizures can cause respiratory problems or even lead to death. 


Fentanyl is a synthetic pain killer that is 100 times more powerful than morphine, and fentanyl is only prescribed in cases of severe pain.

When used in conjunction with other painkillers, fentanyl can quickly cause overdose and other harmful side effects.

Fentanyl is often laced in various narcotics which can prove fatal to people who inject this combination. 


The main ingredient in many powerful painkillers, hydrocodone is sometimes found in drugs such as Vicodin.

Combined with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, the FDA has also approved pure hydrocodone.

Hydrocodone is another powerful substance that, if misused, can result in a patient developing serious adverse events. 


Methadone is additionally used to relieve people’s addictions to other substances, including opiates.

Methadone can also be used for acute pain.

Despite its use to treat other addictions, methadone can be a very powerful substance and should be used under the close care of a physician. 


Morphine has been a very helpful drug for people who suffer from chronic pain.

Morphine is also one of the most addictive opiates in the world.

Unfortunately, morphine is responsible for a large number of unintended drug-related deaths in the United States. 


Oxycodone is marketed under various brand names and is a very powerful opiate.

It is a pain reliever, is widely advertised and has great potential for abuse.

There have recently been legal battles with the company that manufactures Oxycodone on how addictive the substance is to patients. 

Effects of opiate and abuse

Opiates produce sedentary and calming effects when taken in larger doses than prescribed.

The pleasurable feelings experienced when taking these drugs are often the cause of abuse.

Opiate addiction is often characterized by compulsive drug-seeking behavior.

For example, in an attempt to get more of the opiates someone craves, you can visit many doctors to request new prescriptions, called “doctor shopping.”

Certain states, such as New York, have a prescription monitoring program that provides an easy way to track patient’s opiate prescriptions to make sure that they are not doctor shopping and potentially abusing opiates. 

The pathological incentives to use these drugs have prompted people to lend, buy or steal from friends and family.

Out of an act of despair, some may turn to narcotics, a substance that produces effects that are equivalent to the opiate effects that people seek when using opiates.

Although the risks of narcotics are known, it is much easier and cheaper to obtain than opiate pills.

In a 2014 survey, 94 percent of respondents chose to use narcotics more than the exception because it was cheap and easy to recommend.

Yet it can be extremely deadly and is especially fatal if another substance is laced into narcotic.

Bad batches of narcotics are one of the most common causes of narcotic induced deaths, in addition to overdose.

What are the treatments for addiction to opiates?

There are many treatment options for settling, but the first effective treatment of opiate addiction is inpatient detox and later inpatient rehabilitation.

Detoxing from opiates can be a very painful and difficult process for a person recovering from an addiction.

At times they may feel confused, frustrated and exhausted. Yet this is an important step in their recovery process.

Additionally, inpatient rehabilitation centers have specially tailored programs for individuals who have substance abuse issues and opiate addictions.

These programs help patients dig deeper into their problems, allowing them to uncover why they might have started to misuse opiates in the first place.

Understanding the root of their addiction is a very important step in ensuring that they start their recovery process and can return to leading a healthy and meaningful life. 

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about opiates: 

How do I support someone I love who has an opiate addiction?

One of the most important things you can do for someone you love who has an opiate addiction is help them find a program that will meet them where they’re currently at physically and emotionally.

A person’s recovery process may look very different to someone else’s recovery process, even if they are both struggling with substance abuse.

Encouraging your loved one to seek help and providing them with support, kindness and resources to help them make it through a very challenging time in their lives.

What resources are available for people with an opiate addiction?

If someone I know is prescribed an opiate, and I’ve taken that opiate before, is it safe for me to take my friend’s medication?

You should never take prescription medication that is not prescribed to you.

If you have questions regarding the use of opiates for a healthcare condition, reach out to your primary care provider to further discuss if an opiate prescription is medically necessary for you.

Interested in learning more about opiates? Check out these books on this topic:

The Opioid Epidemic: What Everyone Needs to Know


The opioid epidemic is responsible for longest sustained decline in US life expectancy since the time of World War I and the Great Influenza.

In 2017, nearly 50,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose – with an estimated two million more living with opioid addiction every day.

The Opioid Epidemic: What Everyone Needs to Know is an accessible, nonpartisan overview of the causes, politics, and treatments tied to the most devastating health crisis of our time.

Its comprehensive approach and Q&A format offer listeners a practical path to understanding the epidemic from all sides: the basic science of opioids; the nature of addiction; the underlying reasons for the opioid epidemic; effective approaches to helping individuals, families, communities, and national policy; and common myths related to opioid addiction.

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic

In 1929, in the blue-collar city of Portsmouth, Ohio, a company built a swimming pool the size of a football field; named Dreamland, it became the vital center of the community.

Now, addiction has devastated Portsmouth, as it has hundreds of small rural towns and suburbs across America – addiction like no other the country has ever faced. How that happened is the riveting story of Dreamland


The only book to fully chart the devastating opioid crisis in America: An unforgettable portrait of the families and first responders on the front lines, from a New York Times best-selling author and journalist who has lived through it.

In this masterful work, Beth Macy takes us into the epicenter of America’s 20-plus year struggle with opioid addiction.

From distressed small communities in Central Appalachia to wealthy suburbs; from disparate cities to once-idyllic farm towns; it’s a heartbreaking trajectory that illustrates how this national crisis has persisted for so long and become so firmly entrenched. 

Here are some more books you can check out!

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic

Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America

To Eliminate the Opiate: Vol. 1


  1. https://www.addictioncenter.com/opiates/
  2. American Addiction Centers. The Big List of Narcotic Drugs. Last updated on July 30, 2019.
  3. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. opioid prescribing rate maps. Last updated on October 3, 2018.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Prescription opioid use is a risk factor for narcotic use. Last updated in January 2018.
  5. American Addiction Centers. Opiate withdrawal timelines, symptoms, and treatment. Last updated on November 12, 2019.
  6. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevalence of chronic pain and high-impact chronic pain among adults — United States, 2016. Last reviewed on September 16, 2019.