What are opioids?

Prescription drug bottles

Understanding the drug behind the headlines

You may have read about opioid addiction and the opioid crisis in the news. It is widespread and it is serious. An estimated 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. Approximately 2.1 million Americans are battling an opioid addiction.

But what exactly are opioids? Why are they so addictive? And why is their use across America so widespread?  

What are opioids?

Opioids are painkillers.

What are they made from?

Some are made from the poppy plant and used to be referred to as “opiates”.

Some are made synthetically in a lab.

What do opioids do?

They work on the opioid receptors in brain cells.

Those cells then send a signal to the rest of your body that numbs your perception of pain and increases your feelings of pleasure.

What are opioids used for?

Codeine is a weak opioid. It is used to treat mild pain and sometimes available without a prescription.

Stronger opioids are used to treat acute pain after a surgery or for chronic pain conditions.

These stronger drugs are often used in palliative, or end-of-life care when a person has cancer and is in a lot of pain.

Why are they so addictive?

Anyone can become addicted to opioids.

They are so addictive because they work on the reward centers in your brain. They release endorphins, which are the feel-good neurotransmitters. Endorphins dull your pain; make you feel pleasure and generally feel happy.

When that wears off, many people want that good feeling back again. It is this desire to have that pleasurable feeling again that can lead to addiction.


130 Americans dying daily from opioid overdose

2,100,000 – Americans addicted to opioids

191,218,272 – Legal opioid prescriptions in 2017

300% The increase in sale of opioids since 1999

The longer you use opioids, the less your body produces its own endorphins (happy chemicals). And while that first smaller dose of the drug triggered a great feeling, the same dose doesn’t do as much after a while.

That is how many people end up increasing their dose, because they have built up a tolerance.

Where do people get opioids?

Most doctors are aware of the risk of addiction when prescribing opioids and may be reluctant to increase a dose or renew a prescription. If someone can’t get a legal prescription, that’s when they often turn to illegal sources.

Much stronger and synthetic opioids are obtained illegally from criminal drug dealers.

Many of these illegal drugs (like fentanyl) are laced with other substances, or even more powerful drugs.

Who is likely to become addicted?

Anyone of any age, gender, race, ethnicity or class can become addicted to opioids.

How someone takes opioids, however, can be a factor in addiction.

So, crushing a pill or injecting it into the bloodstream can increase the likelihood of addiction and overdose.

The longer you take the drug, the more likely you are to become addicted. The chance that you will still be taking opioids a year after starting them increases after just five days.

How do I recognize an opioid?

There are many kinds of opioids with sometimes long, complicated names.

Some you are more likely to see prescribed are:

  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone
  • Oxycodone
  • Oxymorphone
  • Morphine
  • Methadone
  • Vicodin
  • Tylenol#3/#4
  • Percocet
  • Dilaudid
  • Demerol
A list of opioid drugs on top of a symbol for chemical compound
Opioid Street Names

Why are they so dangerous?

Opioids are effective pain relievers.
In small doses, they make you feel a bit sleepy.
In higher doses, they can slow breathing and the heart rate to the point of death.

I think I’m addicted. What do I do?

Speak to your doctor. Tell a friend. And search for treatment facilities in your area. Michigan-wide you can call the Holy Cross Services 24-hour Helpline at 844-452-4767.

Will I have to go to live-in rehab?

Not necessarily. Holy Cross has residential substance abuse treatment facilities (rehab). But we also have outpatient programs for anyone dealing with substance abuse.

But I have kids. What happens to them if I am in treatment?

Holy Cross Services has treatment programs that allow women with non school-aged children to keep their children with them at our facilities during their treatment, thereby keeping the family unit intact.

To learn more about our programs, visit our list of service locations.

Holy Cross Help Hotline Number 844-452-4767