Opioids are used to relieve moderate to severe pain. They may be used for a short time, such as after surgery, or for long-term pain when safer options don't help.
Opioids don't cure a health problem. But they may help you manage the pain and help you function better.
Opioids or other medicines that contain them include:
- Codeine (Tylenol 3).
- Hydrocodone (Norco).
- Oxycodone (Percocet).
Can you get addicted to opioids?
Opioid use disorder means that a person uses opioids even though it causes harm to themselves or others. Moderate to severe opioid use disorder is sometimes called addiction. The more signs of this disorder you have, the more severe it may be.
Your risk for opioid use disorder is higher if you have a history of substance use disorder. Other things that increase the risk include being a teenager, being an older adult, having a history of mental illness, and taking high doses of opioid medicine.
Opioids are strong medicines. They can help you manage pain when you take them the right way. But if you misuse them, they can cause serious harm and even death. For these reasons, it is important to take them exactly as your doctor prescribes.
Your body gets used to opioids, which may lead to tolerance and physical dependence. These are not the same as addiction.
- Tolerance means that, over time, you may need to take more of the drug to get the same amount of pain relief. The danger is that tolerance greatly increases your risk of overdose, breathing emergencies, and death.
- Physical dependence means your body has become used to having opioids. And you could have withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking them. Symptoms include nausea, sweating, chills, diarrhea, and shaking. But you can avoid these symptoms if you slowly stop taking the medicine as your doctor tells you to.
What are the signs that you may have a problem with opioids?
You may have opioid use disorder if two or more of the following are true. The more signs of this disorder you have, the more severe it may be.
- You use larger amounts of opioids than you ever meant to. Or you've been using them for a longer time than you ever meant to.
- You can't cut down or control your use. Or you constantly wish you could cut down.
- You spend a lot of time getting or using opioids or recovering from the effects.
- You have strong cravings for opioids.
- You can no longer do your main jobs at work, at school, or at home.
- You keep using, even though doing so hurts your relationships.
- You have stopped doing important activities because of your opioid use.
- You use opioids where or when doing so is dangerous.
- You keep using, even though you know it is causing health problems.
- You need more and more of the opioids to get the same effect. Or you get less effect from the same amount over time. This is called tolerance.
- You have uncomfortable symptoms when you stop using opioids or use less (withdrawal). You take opioids to avoid or relieve withdrawal symptoms.
Even if you take opioids as part of a supervised care plan, you can still develop opioid use disorder.
Current as of: February 23, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Robert B. Keller MD - Orthopedics
Heather Quinn MD - Family Medicine