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    Opioids, commonly known as painkillers, are pain-relieving drugs either naturally derived from poppy flowers or lab-made, semi-synthetic substitutes. They work by attaching to particular sites in the brain called opioid receptors, which carry messages to the brain. The message the brain receives is changed, so that pain is no longer perceived as painful. Medications are often formulated in combination with other substances, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.[1]

    Opioids medication can be administered in a variety of ways, but is most widely available as pills, tablets or capsules. Certain opioid medications, like buprenorphine and methadone, are effective treatments for opioid use disorder.

    Commonly known medications include Oxycontin, Percocet, Dilaudid, Demoral and Opana. See the table below for a more complete list of prescription opioids.

    Understand the risks

    Prescription opioids are powerful drugs with a high risk for dependency. Taking them in high doses, and/or in combination with other substances — particularly alcohol — can result in life-threatening respiratory distress and death.

    Prescription pain relievers can cause drowsiness, constipation and slowed breathing. Taking a large single dose can cause severe respiratory depression (slowed breathing) that can lead to death. Use of painkillers with other substances that depress the central nervous system, such as alcohol, antihistamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, or general anesthetics, increases the risk of life-threatening respiratory depression.

    Recent research suggests that, as a whole, opioids are not significantly better than non-opioid pain relievers in relieving acute and chronic pain.[2] This means that alternative options should first be explored with healthcare providers. If those first-line options are not effective, taken exactly as prescribed, opioid pain relievers can manage pain effectively.

    Chronic use or misuse of opioids can result in physical dependence and addiction. Dependence means that the body adapts to the presence of the drug, and withdrawal symptoms occur if use is reduced or stopped. Tolerance to the drugs’ effects also occurs with long-term use, so a person misusing prescription opioids must take higher doses to achieve the same or similar effects as experienced initially. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use.

    The recent epidemic of prescription opioid misuse and abuse has led to increased use of heroin.

    Table of commonly prescribed opioids

    Generic Drug Composition Brand Name
    Hydrocodone/Ibuprofen Vicoprofen, Ibudone, Reprexain
    Ibuprofen/Oxycodone Combunox
    Chlorpheniramine/Hydrocodone TussiCaps
    Acetaminophen/Oxycodone Xolox, Tylox, Magnacet, Endocet, Primlev, Roxicet, Percocet
    Aspirin/Oxycodone Endodan
    Atropine/Difenoxin Motofen
    Tramadol Ryzolt, ConZip, Ultram
    Hydromorphone Dilaudid, Palladone, Exalgo
    Hydromorphone Dilaudid, Palladone, Exalgo
    Pentazocine Talwin
    Meperidine Demerol
    Buprenorphine Buprenex, Butrans
    Tepentadol Nucynta
    Oxymorphone Opana
    Remifentanil Ultiva
    Acetaminophen/Hydrocodone Norco, Lortab, Hycet, Zolvit, Zydone, Lorcet, Maxidone, Co-gesic, Liquicet, Xodol, Vicodin, Stagesic, Zamicet
    Morphine/Naltrexone Embeda
    Fentanyl Sublimaze, Abstral, Subsys, Duragesic, Ionsys
    Morphine Infumorph, Astramorph, Duramorph, DepoDur
    Sufentanil Sufenta
    Alfentanil Alfenta
    Hydrocodone/Pseudophedrine Rezira
    Oxycodone Roxicodone, Oxycontin, Oxecta

    Prevent misuse

    In the case your child or anyone else in your household has been prescribed an opioid pain reliever, take steps to prevent misuse.

    How to help a loved one with opioids

    If you suspect your child or a loved one is struggling with opioid use or addiction explore our resources below.

    Last Updated

    January 2024

    1NIDA. “Opioids.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, , Accessed 2 Nov. 2018.

    2Shah A, Hayes CJ, Martin BC. Characteristics of Initial Prescription Episodes and Likelihood of Long-Term Opioid Use — United States, 2006–2015. MWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2017;66:265–269. DOI:

    Other Sources:

    U.S. National Library of Medicine

    National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)

    Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)
    Reviewed & Updated: October 3, 2018