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Opioids: What You Should Know

About opioids

In 2013, 1 in 4 Oregonians got a prescription for opioids

Opioids are a class of pain-relieving drugs that work by interacting with opioid receptors in the body’s cells. Opioids include prescription painkillers and illicit drugs, such as heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl.  

  • Prescription opioids are medications that relieve pain. They are intended to treat moderate to severe pain and are often prescribed after surgery, an injury, or for health conditions like cancer. Common types of prescription opioids are oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), morphine and methadone.  
  • Illicit opioids include drugs like heroin, illicitly manufactured fentanyl and fentanyl analogs. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl and synthetic opioids are commonly seen in powder or counterfeit pill form.   

Opioids trigger the release of endorphins, the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. Endorphins reduce the perception of pain and boost feelings of pleasure, creating a temporary but powerful sense of well-being. When an opioid dose wears off, people may find themselves wanting those good feelings back, as soon as possible. This is the first milestone on the path toward potential addiction. (Source: Mayo Clinic) 

When people take opioids repeatedly over time, their body slows its production of endorphins. The same dose of opioids stops triggering such a strong flood of good feelings. This is called tolerance. One reason opioid addiction is so common is that people who develop tolerance may feel driven to increase their doses so they can keep feeling good. (Source: Mayo Clinic) 

  • Opioid misuse, abuse, or addiction can lead to death due to the effects of opioids on the part of the brain that regulates breathing.

People are more likely to die from an illicit fentanyl overdose, because it is many times more potent than other opioids. A fentanyl overdose may require multiple doses of naloxone to reverse the overdose. Illicit opioids like fentanyl are sold through illicit drug markets, and buyers or users may not even know the drug they’re buying contains fentanyl. Illicitly made fentanyl and analogs have resulted in a dramatic increase in deaths in the U.S.  

See also Understanding the Epidemic (CDC website)

Manging your opioid prescription

Planning ahead can help you find better ways to heal - without the risk of prescription opioids. Talk to your doctor about the benefits, risks and limitations of prescription pain medications, and other options to manage your pain. 

Heal Safely campaign

Planning ahead can help you find better ways to heal - without the risk of prescription opioids. Heal Safely is a campaign to empower people to heal safely after injury or surgery. We believe everyone deserves safe, effective options that will help them rest, recover and get back to daily life.  En español:

If your doctor prescribes you opioid pain medication:

  • Be sure to tell your doctor about other medications you are taking.
  • Let your doctor know if you have a history of substance use disorder or a mental health disorder.
  • Use the smallest amount of medication for the fewest number of days.
  • Do not drive or operate machinery while taking opioids for pain.
  • Store prescription pain medications in a SAFE, SECURE place, out of reach of others. Be aware of how much medication you have, and monitor the quantity.
  • Use prescription pain medications only as instructed by your doctor. To help prevent misuse, do not sell or share your medication. Never use another person's prescription pain medication.
  • Make a plan with your doctor for when and how to stop, if a choice is made to use prescription pain medications.
  • Dispose of unused medication safely 

See also

How to manage your pain safely and effectively (CDC website)

Disposing of unused medication

Don’t flush unused medications down the toilet or drain. Flushing medications may cause them to get into our water system which and impact fish, wildlife, and community members. Make sure any unused medication is properly disposed of once it is no longer needed.  

Opioid use disorder

People who take opioids, even for short term acute pain management, can develop an opioid use disorder. Opioid dependence causes withdrawal symptoms, making it difficult to stop taking them. Addiction occurs when dependence interferes with daily life. Opioid use disorder can lead to a lifelong struggle with misuse and dependency that impacts a person's relationships, employment, finances, family and community.  

Getting help for opioid use disorder

Opioid use disorder can be successfully treated. If you or a loved one need help to stop using opioids, talk to your health care provider or view our list of resources for getting help.

Consider getting trained to use Naloxone

Naloxone is a medication that can be used to reverse an opioid overdose. Oregon law allows lay people to carry and use naloxone on others. Learn more about naloxone.

See also...

What happens during an overdose

When someone takes too much prescription pain medication or illicit opioids:

  • Their pupils become very small, sometimes called "pinpoint" pupils
  • They may throw up, or make snoring, gurgling or choking sounds
  • Their breathing gets very slow or stops
  • They may turn pale, blue or gray, especially the lips or fingernails
  • They may become unconscious, become limp or not respond to yelling or other stimulation

IF YOU SEE THESE SIGNS: The most important thing is to act right away. CALL 911.

If you call police or 911 to get help for someone having a drug overdose, Oregon's Good Samaritan law protects the 911 caller and the person who has overdosed from being arrested or prosecuted for drug-related charges or parole/probation violations based on information provided to emergency responders. Read the Good Samaritan law (pdf).


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