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Opioids, also known as opiates or narcotics, are commonly used drugs in healthcare settings to help treat serious injuries or pain, but they are also highly addictive. Opioids include heroin, morphine, and opium as well as common prescription drugs such as OxyContin, Vicodin, codeine, and Percocet.

While prescription opioids are usually taken in pill form, opioids can also be snorted, inhaled or injected — which releases the drug into the bloodstream quickly, causing extreme pleasure, breathing issues, and nausea. Taking too many opioids can shut down breathing and cause overdose or death. 

There are 3 main types of opioids:

Prescription opioids, such as morphine and codeine, are prescribed by doctors to treat pain. However, opioids can produce a feeling of being high, so users can become addicted.


Natural opiates come from plants, such as the opium poppy.

Natural opiates include morphine, codeine, and thebaine.


Semi-synthetic opioids are created in labs from natural opiates.

Semi-synthetic opioids include hydromorphone, hydrocodone, and oxycodone, as well as heroin.


Fully synthetic opioids are completely man-made.

Fully synthetic opioids include fentanyl, pethidine, levorphanol, methadone, and tramadol.

Dependence and Addiction

People often think dependence and addiction are the same when talking about substance use, but they are not. The difference between them is important, and key to successful medical treatment.

Physical dependence on opioids means that the body will experience physical symptoms when the substance is no longer being taken. For some people, withdrawal from these drugs can be very uncomfortable and they may need a plan to slowly decrease their drug intake, or get medically directed treatment.

Addiction, unlike physical dependence, does not happen to everyone who takes opioids, and is considered a disease. Addiction is a change in behavior, caused by changes to the brain’s chemistry from the use of an addictive substance. Addiction may cause cravings that seem uncontrollable and make the user feel like they cannot stop or lessen the use of a substance, even if it causes them harm.

The Effects of Opioid Use

Long-term use of opioids, even those prescribed by a doctor, changes the way our bodies and brains work. When someone takes opioids, nerve cells in the body send fewer pain signals and produce dopamine, the feel-good chemical, causing a sense of euphoria or pleasure.

Lots of everyday activities may cause the brain to release dopamine — like eating sweet foods, laughing with friends, or going for a walk on the beach. But opioids cause a much stronger rush of dopamine than these everyday activities, and over time, the brain begins to lose the ability to produce enough dopamine on its own.

As days or weeks pass, someone using opioids may feel like they have to take larger amounts of opioids to experience the same good feeling — this is called tolerance. Eventually, after serious, long-term use, some individuals’ brains can lose the ability to produce dopamine almost completely. These individuals are unable to find almost any pleasure in everyday activities they once enjoyed and may experience depression, anxiety, and physical symptoms called withdrawal. This is the beginning of opioid addiction, which may require professional help including medication.

In case of an emergency or if you suspect someone is experiencing an overdose, call 911. For more information about treatment and resources in Connecticut, call our 24/7 Access Line at 1-800-563-4086.

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