Opioids are chemicals that bind to receptors in the brain and body associated with pain, reward, and addictive behaviors. Common opioids include heroin and legal narcotics such as oxycodone, buprenorphine, morphine, codeine, methadone, and fentanyl. Opioid medications are intended to be used by healthcare providers to relieve pain that cannot be treated with less powerful drugs, but improper prescription or use can easily lead to addiction. Opioid-related disorders are associated with overuse, misuse, and dependence on these drugs; these include opioid-use disorder, opioid intoxication, and opioid withdrawal.
Morphine is frequently prescribed to alleviate severe pain after surgery; fentanyl can also be prescribed for similar reasons. Codeine can relieve milder pain, as can oxycodone (OxyContin, an oral, controlled-release form of the drug), propoxyphene (Darvon), hydrocodone (Vicodin), hydromorphone (Dilaudid) and meperidine (Demerol), which is used less often because of its side effects. Diphenoxylate or Lomotil can also relieve severe diarrhea, and codeine can ease severe coughs.
Other drugs may be given with pain medication for increased effectiveness. These include corticosteroids, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, local anesthetics, and stimulants. Opioids are only safe to use with other drugs under a physician's supervision. They should not be used in conjunction with alcohol, barbiturates, antihistamines, or benzodiazepines. These drugs slow down breathing, and the combined effects can result in life-threatening respiratory depression.