What Kinds of Drugs Are Opioids?

Written by Chloe Nicosia

Looking for info about what kinds of drugs are opioids? We’ve got answers.

Opioids are a class of drugs used to treat pain. To understand what kinds of drugs are opioids, you need to know how they act on the brain. Certain cells in the brain and the body contain opioid receptors, which control things like pain, digestion, and other functions. You body contains natural opioid chemicals, including endorphins, which reduce pain and produce feelings of pleasure. Exercise releases these endorphins, improving your mood and dulling your perception of pain. 

When opioid drugs attach to these receptors, they effectively dull pain. They also act on the brain’s reward center, producing an intense euphoria. Opioid medications that are prescribed to treat pain are designed to affect you gradually, over a period of time. But heroin, an illegal opioid, has no medical value. That’s because it enters your body and brain all at once, producing an extreme high marked by intense euphoria.

What Kinds of Drugs are Opioids? Types of Opioids

There are three main types of opioids: Natural, semi-synthetic, and fully synthetic. Here is a short list of opioids by type:

Natural opioids are alkaloids, which are base chemical compounds that contain nitrogen and occur in plants like the opium poppy. Morphine, codeine, and thebaine are all natural opioids.

Semi-synthetic opioids are manmade, created in a lab from natural opioids. These include hydromorphone, hydrocodone, and oxycodone. Heroin is also a semi-synthetic opioid, made from morphine.

Fully synthetic opioids are entirely man-made. These include fentanyl, methadone, and tramadol.

What kinds of drugs are opioids? The list of opioids is long, but they all fall into one of these three groups. Aside from how they’re made, there’s little difference between the three types of opioids. They’re all highly addictive, and they all have a high potential for overdose.

Why Are Opioids So Addictive?

The opioid epidemic in the U.S. is in full swing. Opioid medications and heroin caused 52,404 overdose deaths in 2015 and more than 64,000 in 2016, illustrating the danger of these drugs. Around 2.1 million Americans are addicted to opioid pain medications, and another 467,000 are addicted to heroin.

What kinds of drugs are opioids? They are highly addictive drugs. That’s because when opioids act on the brain, they produce the same feelings of pleasure that you get from activities like sex and eating, only far more powerful. Opioids act on the reward, learning, and memory centers of the brain. When you use opioids to get high, the memory center records a memory, and the learning center associates the drug use with the pleasure. These associations become stronger over time and can lead to cravings and elevated drug use. Eventually, the drug use may become compulsive. Addiction changes the way you think and behave, leading to self-destructive thought and behavior patterns that lead to compulsive drug use despite the negative consequences it causes, such as problems with your health, relationships, finances, or the law.

It’s estimated that 23 percent of people who abuse opioids become addicted. In comparison, around nine percent of people who abuse alcohol become addicted.

Opioid Dependence

Addiction and dependence aren’t the same thing. Dependence is characterized by withdrawal symptoms that set in when you stop using opioids. It occurs due to changes in brain function caused by the frequent presence of opioids. As the drug causes your brain to release chemicals like dopamine to produce euphoria, your brain compensates by reducing its dopamine function and other chemical functions. As a result, you need increasingly larger doses of opioids to get the desired effects. This is known as tolerance, and it’s a sign that dependence is developing.

As you use more opioids, your brain function continues to change. At some point, brain function may shift so that it now operates more comfortably when opioids are in your body. Then, when you try to stop using, normal brain function rebounds, and the result is a collection of withdrawal symptoms that can be excruciating enough to make quitting extremely difficult.

Treating Opioid Addiction and Dependence

The first step of treatment for opioid addiction is either medical detox or medication-assisted treatment, which address the physical dependence on opioids. Medical detox involves letting all traces of opioids leave the body so brain function can return to normal. Supervised by medical personnel, medical detox involves medications that are given as needed to reduce the intensity of withdrawal and shorten the duration of detox. Medication-assisted treatment involves administering medications that prevent withdrawal and block cravings while normalizing brain function.

Treating an opioid addiction requires intensive therapy to help you re-learn healthy ways of thinking and behaving and develop essential skills for coping with triggers like stress and cravings. Treatment should last at least 90 days for the best possible outcomes.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, get help right away. Make a phone call that will connect you to a professional drug treatment center. The call you make may save your life or the life of someone you love. Call us today at 1.800.429.7690.