CT Clearinghouse

Opiates / Opioids

Opioids are commonly prescribed because of their effective analgesic, or pain relieving, properties.

Research & Statistics

  • Drug Overdose Deaths Among Women Aged 30–64 Years — United States, 1999–2017

    The drug epidemic in the United States continues to evolve. The drug overdose death rate has rapidly increased among women, although within this demographic group, the increase in overdose death risk is not uniform. From 1999 to 2010, the largest percentage changes in the rates of overall drug overdose deaths were among women in the age groups 45–54 years and 55–64 years; however, this finding does not take into account trends in specific drugs or consider changes in age group distributions in drug-specific overdose death rates.

  • Effective Treatments for Opioid Addiction

    Medications, including buprenorphine (Suboxone®, Subutex®), methadone, and extended release naltrexone (Vivitrol®), are effective for the treatment of opioid use disorders.

  • Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon Generals Spotlight on Opioids

    The Spotlight on Opioids assembles opioid-related information from the Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health into one document to better inform the general public, especially family and friends of people with an elevated risk of opioid overdose, opioid misuse, and/or opioid use disorder.

  • Fatal and Nonfatal Overdose Among Pregnant and Postpartum Women in Massachusetts

    Opioid-related overdose deaths have more than quadrupled over the past fifteen years, representing a public health emergency. The rates of heroin use and prescription opioid-related overdose deaths are rising faster in women than in men, particularly women of reproductive age. Multiple states have identified opioid-related overdoses as a major contributor to pregnancy-associated deaths. Among all pregnancy associated deaths, 11–20% were due to opioid-overdose.

  • NIDA Information for Researchers

    Links to various NIDA publications, including research reports, Addiction Science & Clinical Practice journal, NIDA Notes, and more.

  • Prescription Opioid Addiction Treatment Study (POATS)

    Treatment Strategies for Prescription Opioid Dependence is a package of tools and training resources for substance use disorders treatment providers.

  • PubMed

    PubMed comprises more than 20 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books. Citations may include links to full-text content from PubMed Central and publisher web sites.

  • SAMHSA Data

    This site includes data on drug abuse. Searchable by an A-Z list of topics.

  • The Researched Abuse, Diversion and Addiction-Related Surveillance (RADARS®) System

    The Researched Abuse, Diversion and Addiction-Related Surveillance (RADARS®) System is a prescription drug abuse, misuse and diversion surveillance system that collects timely product-and geographically-specific data.

  • The Ripple Effect: The Impact of the Opioid Epidemic on Children and Families

    Despite a significant volume of news and research on the tragic toll of opioids, one aspect has gone relatively unnoticed: the impact on children and families.

    A United Hospital Fund project is working to change that by shining a light on the epidemic’s long-lasting and destructive “ripple effects” on children and adolescents whose parents are addicted and on kinship caregivers who often end up caring for these young people.

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Opioids are commonly prescribed because of their effective analgesic, or pain relieving, properties. Studies have shown that properly managed medical use of opioid analgesic compounds is safe and rarely causes addiction. Taken exactly as prescribed, opioids can be used to manage pain effectively.

Among the compounds that fall within this class—sometimes referred to as narcotics—are morphine, codeine, and related medications. Morphine is often used before or after surgery to alleviate severe pain. Codeine is used for milder pain. Other examples of opioids that can be prescribed to alleviate pain include oxycodone (OxyContin—an oral, controlled release form of the drug); propoxyphene (Darvon); hydrocodone (Vicodin); hydromorphone (Dilaudid); and meperidine (Demerol), which is used less often because of side effects. In addition to their effective pain relieving properties, some of these medications can be used to relieve severe diarrhea (Lomotil, for example, which is diphenoxylate) or severe coughs (codeine).

Opioids act by attaching to specific proteins called opioid receptors, which are found in the brain, spinal cord, and gastrointestinal tract. When these compounds attach to certain opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord, they can effectively change the way a person experiences pain.

In addition, opioid medications can affect regions of the brain that mediate what we perceive as pleasure, resulting in the initial euphoria that many opioids produce. They can also produce drowsiness, cause constipation, and, depending upon the amount taken, depress breathing. Taking a large single dose could cause severe respiratory depression or death.

Opioids may interact with other medications and are only safe to use with other medications under a physician’s supervision. Typically, they should not be used with substances such as alcohol, antihistamines, barbiturates, or benzodiazepines. Since these substances slow breathing, their combined effects could lead to life-threatening respiratory depression.

Long-term use also can lead to physical dependence—the body adapts to the presence of the substance and withdrawal symptoms occur if use is reduced abruptly. This can also include tolerance, which means that higher doses of a medication must be taken to obtain the same initial effects. Note that physical dependence is not the same as addiction—physical dependence can occur even with appropriate long-term use of opioid and other medications. Addiction, as noted earlier, is defined as compulsive, often uncontrollable drug use in spite of negative consequences.

Individuals taking prescribed opioid medications should not only be given these medications under appropriate medical supervision, but also should be medically supervised when stopping use in order to reduce or avoid withdrawal symptoms. Symptoms of withdrawal can include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps ("cold turkey"), and involuntary leg movements.

Individuals who become addicted to prescription medications can be treated. Options for effectively treating addiction to prescription opioids are drawn from research on treating heroin addiction.

Examples of some pharmacological available treatments:

  • Methadone, a synthetic opioid that blocks the effects of heroin and other opioids, eliminates withdrawal symptoms and relieves craving. It has been used for over 30 years to successfully treat people addicted to opioids.
  • Buprenorphine, another synthetic opioid, is a recent addition to the arsenal of medications for treating addiction to heroin and other opiates.
  • Naltrexone, a long-acting opioid blocker, often used with highly motivated individuals in treatment programs promoting complete abstinence. Naltrexone also is used to prevent relapse.
  • Naloxone counteracts the effects of opioids and is used to treat overdoses.