Opioids are a drug class that includes heroin, synthetic opioids, like; fentanyl, and pain medications accessible legally by prescription including oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, morphine, and many more.

Pure opium is a combination of 24 alkaloids derived from the sap of unripened Papaver somniferum seedpods (poppy). Morphine and codeine are examples of natural alkaloids that are also referred to as opiates. Heroin, fentanyl, hydromorphone, methadone, buprenorphine, and others are synthetic derivatives. The word opiate is frequently (though slightly erroneously) used to refer to both synthetic opiate derivatives such as oxycodone and genuine opiates. Fentanyl is one of the most potent and lethal opioids. It has a 50-fold higher potency than heroin. It’s a synthetic opioid that’s commonly used to relieve severe pain following surgery.

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Medicinal Uses

Opioids, often known as narcotics, are medicines recommended by doctors to relieve chronic or severe pain. They are used by individuals who have persistent headaches and backaches, patients recuperating from surgery or enduring severe pain from cancer, and adults and children who have been wounded playing sports or who have been badly injured in falls, vehicle accidents, or other occurrences.

There are numerous different forms of prescribed opioids, such as:

  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone
  • Oxycodone
  • Oxymorphone
  • Morphine


Opioids work by engaging particular cell surface receptors known as opiate receptors ([mu], [kappa], and [delta]. These receptors are mostly located in the central nervous system, brain, and spinal column, but they are also found on vascular, heart, lung, gut, and even peripheral blood mononuclear cells. When opioid medicines pass through the bloodstream and bind to opioid receptors in brain cells, the cells release signals that reduce pain perception while increasing sensations of pleasure.


Opioids may make a person sleepy at low dosages, but at greater amounts, they might decrease breathing and heart rate, which can lead to death.

Opioid abuse can result in death because opioids affect the portion of the brain that controls respiration. A combination of three signs and symptoms can indicate an opioid overdose:

  • Pinpoint pupils,
  • Unconsciousness, and,
  • Breathing difficulties


If the individual obtains basic life care and the medication naloxone is administered promptly, death from an opioid overdose can be avoided. Naloxone is an opioid antidote that, if given quickly enough, can reverse the symptoms of an opioid overdose. Naloxone is a strong antagonist and competitive inhibitor of the mu-opioid receptor, is used as an antidote for opioid intoxication. In those who haven’t used opioids, naloxone has almost little impact.

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Sources & References:

Opioid Toxicity by Everett Stephens, MD; Chief Editor: Jeter (Jay) Pritchard Taylor, III, MD


CDC Emergency Preparedness and Response: Increase in Fatal Drug Overdoses Across the United States Driven by Synthetic Opioids Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic, 17 December 2020.

“Recreational” Drugs by Petra A. Volmer DVM, MS, DABVT, DABT, in Small Animal Toxicology (Third Edition), 2013

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