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Prescription opioids can be used to treat moderate-to-severe pain and are often prescribed following surgery or injury, or for health conditions such as cancer. In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the acceptance and use of prescription opioids for the treatment of chronic, non-cancer pain, despite serious risks and the lack of evidence about their long-term effectiveness.

Anyone who takes prescription opioids can become addicted to them. In fact according to the CDC, as many as one in four patients receiving long-term opioid therapy in a primary care setting struggles with opioid addiction. Once addicted, it can be hard to stop.

Some of the most common opioid prescriptions abused

Generic Name

Brand Name

Some Side Effects

AlprazolamXanaxdepressed mood, thoughts of suicide or hurting yourself, unusual risk-taking behavior, decreased inhibitions, no fear of danger: confusion, agitation, hostility, hallucinations; feeling like you might pass out; chest pain; seisure (convulsions); dissiness; blurred vision, headache, memory problems; sleep problems (insomnia); muscle weakness, slurred speach; upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, constipation, or diarrhea
ClonazepamKlonopinconfusion, hallucinations, unusual thoughts or behavior; unusual risk-taking behavior, no fear of danger; weak or shallow breathing; pounding heartbeats or fluttering in your chest; easy bruising or bleeding; dizziness; memory problems; muscle weakness; slurred speech; nausea, diarrhea, constipation; blurred vision; headache; sleep problems (insomnia); skin rash; or weight changes
FentanylActiq, Dugesic, Sublimazeslow heart rate, weak or shallow breathing; confusion, hallucinations, unusual thoughts or behavior; severe weakness, feeling like you might pass out; cold, clammy skin; or pale skin, easy bruising or bleeding; fever; constipation, diarrhea; nausea, vomiting; headache; weakness; feeling anxious or nervous; sweating, skin rash; or itching, blistering, redness, or swelling
HydrocodoneLocet, Vicodinshallow breathing, slow heartbeat; feeling light-headed, fainting; confusion, fear, unusual thoughts or behavior; seizure (convulsions); or nausea, loss of appetite, jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes); anxiety, dizziness, drowsiness; nausea, vomiting, upset stomach, constipation; headache, mood changes; blurred vision; ringing in your ears; or dry mouth
MorphineRMS, MS, Contin, Avinzaabdominal or stomach pain; blurred vision; burning, crawling, itching, numbness, prickling, "pins and needles", or tingling feelings; chest pain or discomfort; confusion; dizziness, faintness; fast, pounding, or irregular heartbeat or pulse; headache; nausea; nervousness; pounding in the ears; puffiness or swelling of the eyelids or around the eyes, face, lips, or tongue; severe constipation; severe vomiting; shakiness in the legs, arms, hands, or feet; shortness of breath; slow heartbeat; agitation; change in vision; or depression
OxycodoneOxycontin, Percodan, Roxicodon, Percoset, Roxicetshallow breathing, slow heartbeat; seizure (convulsions); cold, clammy skin; confusion; severe weakness or dizziness; feeling like you might pass out; nausea, vomiting, constipation, loss of appetite; dizziness, headache, tired feeling; dry mouth; sweating; or itching

The cycle of addiction may include some of the following characteristics:

  • A person feeling pain and discomfort (social, emotional, or physical)
  • Frustration and internal pain that leads to anxiety and a demand for relief of these symptoms.
  • Fantasizing about using alcohol and drugs or behaviors to relieve the uncomfortable symptoms.
  • Obsessing about using drugs and alcohol and how his or her life will be after the use of substances.
  • A person seeking ways to feel better, so he or she starts to take drugs.
  • Engaging in the addictive activity, such as using substances to gain relief (acting out).
  • At first, the drugs seem to work because they dull the pain the person is trying to escape from. So the person keeps taking the drug.
  • From this point, it often doesn't take long for the person to become addicted because he or she has developed a physical dependence—an addiction—to the substance. Now the person can think only about getting more of this drug just to function.
  • Losing control over the behavior.
  • At this stage, a serious downward spiral begins. The person will sacrifice anything—family, friends, school, or work—for drugs. Changed by drugs both physically and mentally, the person is now an addict.
  • Developing feelings of remorse, guilt and shame, which lead to feelings of dissatisfaction.
  • Making a promise or resolve to oneself to stop the behavior or substance use.

Nature vs. Nurture Facts

Risk for addiction is influenced by individual biology, social environment, and age or stage of development.

No single factor can predict whether a person will become addicted to drugs. Risk for addiction is influenced by a combination of factors that include individual biology, social environment, and age or stage of development. The more risk factors an individual has, the greater the chance that taking drugs can lead to addiction.

Learn More from The National Institute on Drug Abuse

It may be harder for people with certain genes to quit once they start.

When scientists look for "addiction genes," what they are really looking for are biological differences that may make someone more or less vulnerable to addiction. It may be harder for people with certain genes to quit once they start. Or they may experience more severe withdrawal symptoms if they try to quit. Factors that make it harder to become addicted also may be genetic.

Learn More from the Genetic Science Learning Center

Drug abuse impairs brain functioning.

Drug addiction erodes a person's self-control and ability to make sound decisions, while sending intense impulses to take drugs.

Learn More from the National Institute on Drug Abuse

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Understanding the Opioid Epidemic is a production of WNED PBS

With funding provided by BlueCross BlueShield Association and the Brain Research Foundation.


WNED does not recommend or endorse any specific opinions or information that may be mentioned of referenced on this website.