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What is an opioid?

Eric Egeler, PharmD
Pharmacy Specialist

Opioids are strong drugs, such as Norco, morphine, Percocet, etc., that are used to treat pain. Over-the-counter medications, such as Tylenol and ibuprofen, also treat pain, but opioids have a much stronger effect on the brain’s chemistry. Opioids can have grave consequences for older adults taking these medications long term.

Dr. Howard J. Shaffer, PhD
Addiction Medicine Specialist
Opioid is the catchall term for substances, whether naturally occurring or synthetic, that bind to a group of receptors in the central nervous system called opioid receptors. Your brain makes its own brand of opioids, called endorphins. Opioids include plant-derived substances (known as opiates) and similar-acting synthetics. Opiates come from the seedpod of the Asian opium poppy plant and include opium, morphine, and codeine.

Semi-synthetic opioids include heroin, oxycodone, and hydrocodone. The best-known version of oxycodone is OxyContin, a sustained-release formula. Percocet is oxycodone with acetaminophen (Tylenol), and Percodan is oxycodone with aspirin. Vicodin is the brand name for hydrocodone with acetaminophen. Fully synthetic opioids include fentanyl (Duragesic), hydromorphone (Dilaudid), and meperidine (Demerol).
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)
An opioid or opiate is a broad category of drugs that are best known as painkillers. These are naturally derived from the poppy plant and include opium, codeine and morphine, or are synthetic and semisynthetic variants of those molecules. Hydrocodone and oxycodone are the most abused opiates.

Opiates block pain, but also unleash intense feelings of well-being and can create physical dependence. The withdrawal symptoms are also intense, with users complaining of cramps, diarrhea, muddled thinking and nausea and vomiting.
Opioids are anything derived from opium, including morphine derivatives, morphine itself, codeine and anything chemically related to these substances. Most prescription painkillers fall into this category, including codeine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, buprenorphine, methadone and heroin. They’re often referred to as narcotics or prescription painkillers. What they do is stimulate a certain receptor called the μ-opioid receptor in the brain.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.