What are opioids?
Opioids are naturally found in the opium poppy plant. Some opioid medications are made from this plant while others are made by scientists in labs. Opioids have been used for hundreds of years to treat pain, cough, and diarrhea.
What are the most commonly used opioids?
The most commonly used prescription opioids are oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), codeine, and morphine. Heroin is an opioid, but it is not a medication. Fentanyl is a powerful prescription pain reliever that sometimes leads to overdoses.
How do opioids work?
Your brain is full of molecules called receptors that receive signals from other parts of the body. Opioids attach to receptors on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, and other organs. This allows them to block pain messages sent from the body to the brain, which is why they are prescribed for serious injuries or illnesses.
When the opioids attach to the receptors, they also cause a large amount of dopamine to be released in the pleasure centers of the brain. Dopamine is the chemical responsible for making us feel reward and motivates our actions. The dopamine release caused by the opioids sends a rush of extreme pleasure and well-being throughout the body.
Opioid addiction can happen to someone you know
Most youth are first exposed to opioids after a dental procedure such as wisdom teeth removal or a sports injury. Opioids are not the only option to treat and manage pain. Research has shown that Ibuprofen/Tylenol combinations are just as effective without the addictive properties. There are also several other alternative ways to manage pain. Below are links to educational resources so that you can research alternative pain treatment options.
What are the health effects of opioids on the brain and the body?
In the short term, the release of dopamine into your body can make some people feel really relaxed and happy. But it can also cause more harmful effects, like extreme sleepiness, confusion, nausea, vomiting, and constipation. Over time, opioids can lead to insomnia, muscle pain, heart infections, pneumonia, and addiction.
What is prescription opioid misuse?
- Taking your prescription in ways other than instructed, like taking more than your prescribed dose or taking it more often
- Getting and using prescription pills from a friend or family member, even if it’s for a real medical condition
- Taking prescription drugs to get high
- Mixing prescription opioids with alcohol or other drugs
“I have an opioid prescription from my doctor; so, they can’t be that bad, can they?”
Prescription opioids are used to treat severe pain. People who have major surgeries including dental work, serious sports injuries, or cancer are sometimes prescribed these pills to manage their pain. When taken as prescribed, opioids are relatively safe and can reduce pain in the short term. But if a person misuses the drug and doesn’t take them as prescribed, opioids can have dangerous consequences.
“Is it safe to take my friend’s prescription opioids if I get hurt playing soccer?”
Taking someone else’s prescription medicine, even if you are in real pain, can be dangerous. Before prescribing opioids, doctors consider a lot of different factors, including the patient’s weight, other medical conditions, and potential interactions with other medications they might be taking. Without talking to a doctor, you won’t know how the opioids will affect you or what dose you should take. You should never share prescription opioids and only use them when prescribed to you by a doctor.
Treating opioid addiction
Researchers have developed medications to help people recover from opioid addiction. Methadone and buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex) both activate the opioid receptors just enough to prevent an opioid-addicted person from feeling withdrawal or cravings, but not enough for them to get high. This helps prevent relapse while their brain gradually heals. Naltrexone (Vivitrol) blocks opioid receptors and prevents the opioid from having its usual effects.
Combined with other support, like counseling, these medications can help people stop abusing opioids and get on with their lives.
Another medication, called naloxone, which also blocks opioids from affecting opioid receptors, can be used in emergencies to stop a person from dying of an overdose. It needs to be given quickly, which is why the Food and Drug Administration just approved an easy-to-use nasal spray version that can be given by a friend or family member.
Call 911, save a life
What does an overdose look like?
Opioid overdoses are life-threatening. Learn to recognize the signs, and don’t be afraid to call 911 if someone you know is showing these signs of a possible overdose:
- Their face is extremely pale and/or feels clammy to the touch
- Their body goes limp
- Their fingernails or lips have a purple or blue color
- They start vomiting or making gurgling noises
- They cannot be awakened or are unable to speak
- Their breathing or heartbeat slows or stops
Naloxone is widely used by emergency responders, such as police and doctors. So if someone is overdosing, it’s really important to get them help as soon as possible. It could save their life. In many states, “Good Samaritan laws” protect people who call 911 to get help for a friend who has overdosed.
Naloxone at home
If you have a family member who needs to take opioid pain relievers for an extended amount of time, or who is using opioids illegally, your family might want to have this medicine on hand in case of an emergency. In Washington State, State Health Officer Dr. Lofy has issued a standing order which allows pharmacies to dispense naloxone to anyone.
WA State law RCW 69.41.095 allows anyone “at risk for having or witnessing a drug overdose” to obtain an opioid overdose medication and administer it in an overdose. This includes people who use opioids, family members, friends and professionals. WA State’s 2015 “Naloxone law” RCW 69.41.095 also permits naloxone to be prescribed directly to an “entity” such as a police department, homeless shelter or social service agency for staff to administer if they witness an overdose when performing their professional duties.
RCW 69.41.095 permits non-medical persons to distribute naloxone under a prescriber’s standing order.
Safe storage of opioid medications
One way to reduce drug availability in your local community is to safely store your medications using a secure locking medicine box or bag. If you have unused, expired, or unwanted medications, you can return and dispose of them at the secure Medication Drop Box located in the Lincoln County Hospital at 10 Nicholls St. Davenport, WA. 99122
Patients with pain should receive treatment that provides the greatest benefit. Opioids are not the first-line therapy for chronic pain outside of active cancer treatment, palliative care, and end-of-life care. Evidence suggests that nonopioid treatments, including nonopioid medications and nonpharmacological therapies can provide relief to those suffering from chronic pain, and are safer. Non-opioid medications can include Acetaminophen, NSAIDS, and topical agents. There are also natural and holistic treatments such as yoga, acupressure, acupuncture, and plant based medicines.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Opioid Facts for Teens. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/opioid-facts-teens/faqs-about-opioids
National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. (2020). Naloxone Saves Lives. Retrieved from https://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/naloxone-saves-lives