What Is Opioid Addiction? Opioid Use Disorder Signs And Treatment

Last Updated: May 12, 2021

Authored by Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

Pain affects an estimated 25.3 million American adults on a daily basis. Around 10.3% of the American adult population reports experiencing severe chronic pain. Various drugs have been developed in order to assist with the management of both acute and chronic pain. These painkillers are some of the most common class of medications used among the general population to relieve pain symptoms. What is an opioid? Why opioid abuse occurs? How to spot signs of opioid addiction in a loved one what is the most successful way to treat opioid addiction? Read further and get the answers.

Opioids: What Are They?

Understanding what is opioid and what the drugs do to the body is essential in order to know how this type of medicine may possibly lead to addiction. In many cases, opioids are also called narcotics, due to the classification of these medicines.

Patient asking elderly doctor
Opioids drugs were initially made from extracts of the opium poppy plant. It should be noted that currently the majority of opioid analgesic medicines are not made from natural compounds anymore, but rather synthetic chemicals that are made to have a similar structure to that yielded by the natural extracts that used to be taken from the opium poppy plant.

While consuming them, it is essential to consider the fact that many would make a comparison such as opiate vs. opioid. An opiate is a drug that consists of a chemical extracted from the opium poppy plant. On the other hand, when asked to define opioid, this is rather a chemical made purely in a laboratory and considered synthetic.
Opioids are in controlled substances list. Valid prescription is required to use and purchase them.

Why Are Opioids Prescribed?

Due to the opioid mechanism of action, this drug is most commonly prescribed to treat pain symptoms. In the majority of cases where a physician would prescribe opioid pills, the individual is experiencing acute pain.
Male medicine doctor hand hold pills and write prescription

When it comes to asking what opioids are used for, it is important to note how this substance interacts with the body. The chemicals found in medicine has an effect on the brain. By changing the balance of certain chemicals in the brain, the person who took the drug experiences a relaxing feeling. This helps to alleviate the pain that the person is suffering from.
While there was a time when looking at an opioid definition would yield details regarding cancer-related pain only, these drugs are now commonly prescribed for pain symptoms caused by other conditions as well.
Pain is not the only reason why a physician may prescribe a dose of these drugs to a person. Opioid prescribing guidelines sometimes also allowed a doctor to provide a person with certain types of these medicines to assist in treating severe diarrhea. These drugs can only be used to treat diarrhea if they were prescribed by physician.
When used as a treatment for diarrhea, the person should carefully follow the instructions provided to them. Opioid-induced constipation has been noted among some individuals, which typically occurs if not careful with the dosage of the medicine.
Opioid medication is sometimes included in certain cough medicine mixtures as well, as the chemical may help to reduce coughing.

Brand And Generic Names

There are many different painkillers if this kind on the market, each providing a specific chemical structure. Some of the medicines that contain this chemical only give the person access to opioids. Other drugs, however, may combine these chemicals with other substances. Even though the medication is sometimes mixed with other drugs to provide a more effective way of relieving pain in a person with such symptoms, it is vital that individuals do not try to mix the drugs themselves. For example, when mixing opioids and benzodiazepines, a number of potential side-effects can occur.For those who have asked what drugs are opioids, below is a list of some commonly prescribed medicines that contain this chemical as an active ingredient.

  • Oxycodone
  • Morphine
  • Hydromorphone
  • Hydrocodone-Acetaminophen
  • Hydrocodone bitartrate
  • Hydrocodone-Ibuprofen
  • Hydrocodone-Homatropine
  • Fentanyl
  • Codeine Poli-Chlorphenir
  • Methadone
  • Morphine Sulfate
  • Meperidine
  • Tramadol
  • Buprenorphine
  • Carfentanil
  • Oxymorphone Hydrochloride

Many of these drugs come in generic and brand name form. Thus it is always important for a person to know how long opioids stay in the system, take a look at the specific active chemicals that are found in medicine before they take any pills or other forms of substances – even when prescribed.

How Are Opioids Classified?

While this term is often used, it is important to note that there are different classifications of these drugs, and they do not work the same way. Thus, understanding what they are should really include a thorough overview of the different classifications in which such a drug can fall into. Questions like are opioids depressants are commonly asked by patients, who are not sure what their drug class is.
Doctor shows types of opioids on laptop
When looking at how these painkillers are classified, it is important to note that there are two ways in which the medication can be categorized. First, there is a number of drug classes. Second, a range of different categories also exist.

Primary Classes

The three primary classes that exist today include:

  • Phenylheptylamines
  • Phenanthrenes
  • Phenylpiperidines

Classification By Chemical Structure

There are four different categories that should also be noted:

  • Endogenous, such as enkephalins, endorphins, and dynorphins
  • Semisynthetic, such as oxycodone
  • Synthetic, such as fentanyl and methadone
  • Opium alkaloids, which include codeine and morphine

While each class or category has its own way of working. There is an opioid conversion that describes the level of potency.

Are Opioids Addictive?

Opioid addiction has been recorded multiple times, yet many individuals still ask whether or not these drugs are truly addictive. The short answer to whether or not opioid dependence is possible would be yes – an epidemic has even been declared in the U.S. due to a significant number of people abusing and becoming addicted to both prescription and illegal types of these chemicals. Dangers of this drug, hidden by some manufacturers, lead to many opioid lawsuits across the country.
When it comes to looking at opioid use disorder, it is important to consider how the drug works in the body. This, in turn, would lead to a better understanding of why opioid dependence ICD 10 might be possible in some individuals.
For those asking why opioids addictive, it is crucial to look at the effects of the chemical on the brain. Once administered, it causes certain changes to chemicals in the brain. The study on opioid addiction explains that the receptors affected by this medication cause a person to experience euphoria. With an estimated 11 million adults in the United States abusing these drugs in 2015, abuse statistics clearly show the addictive potential of the chemical.

Opioid Tolerance

Opioid tolerance often develops in people who use these painkillers for a long period of time. This would cause the person to experiment with higher doses of the medicine. In turn, the risk of opioid side effects to appear is greatly increased.
 Tolerant to opioids Taking Medication
This is also where the addiction starts to develop. When looking at opioid addiction facts, higher doses are often taken when a person starts to become tolerant to the effects of the medicine. When the person is unable to take a higher dose or not gain access to them, they tend to experience opioid withdrawal symptoms.

Opioid Addiction Treatment

When a person expresses opioid addiction symptoms, it is important for appropriate action to be taken. Several opioid addiction treatment programs have been developed following the declaration of an epidemic. While a person may want to first commit to beating addiction on their own, it is strongly recommended to seek professional medical treatment to avoid painful withdrawals and relapse.
When professional addiction treatment services are utilized, often in the form of a rehab that specializes in drug addiction rehabilitation programs, the person can gain access to the support required to ensure they can overcome the addictive behavior that the use of this medication has imposed on them. There are different ways in which addiction can be treated.
Certain alternatives to opioids may be provided to help the person taper off without causing serious withdrawal symptoms.

Counseling is also offered to the individual, as a counselor might be able to tap into the root causes of the individual’s addiction and help them work through any mental complications that might have occurred.

Page Sources

  1. Martin R. Huecker; Mohammadreza Azadfard; James M. Leaming, Opioid Addiction, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448203/
  2. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, Estimates of pain prevalence and severity in adults: United States, 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26028573

Published on: March 22nd, 2017

Updated on: May 12th, 2021

About Author

Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Dr. Ahmed Zayed is a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery. He is graduated from the University of Alexandria, Egypt. Dr. Ahmed Zayed has a passion for writing medical and health care articles and focuses on providing engaging and trustworthy information to readers.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.


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  • Larry smith
    My wife has been on hospis for 6months taking norcos and know she is no longer on hospis and is now coming off of them what can I do