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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.

    The overprescribing of prescription pain relievers has been a major cause of the opioid epidemic. Know what to ask when your child is prescribed opioids.
    Learn more
    If your child is in recovery or you're worried about them using opioids, there are many alternatives that can help alleviate their pain.
    Learn more
    Two-thirds of teens who report misusing Rx medication get it from friends, family and acquaintances. Learn proper storage and disposal to help prevent misuse.
    Learn more

    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.

    It can be difficult to persuade a loved one to consider treatment. Even when they are willing to consider it, it’s not uncommon for them to still feel unsure or say no. If your loved one expresses even a little willingness to start getting help — whether it’s attending a support group meeting, or getting a treatment consultation — it can be all the invitation you need to begin the conversation.
    Learn more
    In the event of an opioid overdose (including heroin and prescribed pain medications), naloxone can reverse an overdose and save a life.
    Medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) help treat opioid use disorder by reducing withdrawal symptoms and cravings and helping to prevent relapse. As part of a comprehensive treatment plan, it is considered the gold standard of care.
    Learn more
    Watch this video series to help you understand the relationship between (and risks of) opioid addiction and IV drug use, and how to best to help your child.
    Learn more
    Learn about how the opioid epidemic started, how you can keep your community safe, and how to help a loved one who is struggling -- download your eBook now.
    Learn more

    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