What You Need to Know About Heroin, Illegal Opioids, & Non-Medical Use of Prescription Opioids

Banner: What You Need To Know About Heroin, Illegal Opioids, & Non-Medical Use of Prescription Opioids

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Opioids include medications prescribed for pain relief and illegal drugs like heroin. Non-medical use, also known as misuse, of opioid drugs, no matter how they are produced, can lead to addiction and dependence, arrest and incarceration, and fatal or non-fatal overdose.

List of important opioid related terms to know.Most people addicted to opioids began taking prescription opioids, usually prescribed after an injury. They often progress to misuse of pain medications (such as taking a higher dose than prescribed or taking them more frequently than directed), getting them from multiple prescribers and friends, or buying them from others. When people become addicted and can no longer obtain prescriptions or afford to buy pills on the street, they may turn to heroin and other illegal opioids.

Opioid addiction can happen to anyone. But increasing your knowledge about the risks of opioid misuse can help you better understand addiction and find help for yourself or someone you care about before things get worse.

Before you take an opioid, know the facts!

Non-Medical Use of Prescription Opioids

  • Most people who misuse prescription opioids get them from friends or relatives.
  • People also obtain multiple prescriptions through “doctor shopping” or other deceptive means.
  • Prescription opioids may be diverted in large quantities and sold to users who take them for non-medical reasons.
  • Clinics known as “pill mills” and unethical prescribers profit by intentionally overprescribing and distributing opioids.

Examples of opioids commonly prescribed to relieve pain include hydrocodone (Vicodin®), oxycodone (OxyContin®), oxymorphone (Opana®), morphine, and codeine. Two long-acting opioid medications, buprenorphine and methadone, are widely used by physicians and opioid treatment programs to help people recover from opioid addiction.

Facts About Fentanyl: Fentanyl is a potent, fast-acting synthetic opioid developed as an anesthetic for use during surgery. It is sometimes used to manage severe acute pain and prescribed to cancer patients for breakthrough pain.

Use of Illegal Opioid Drugs

  • Heroin, non-pharmaceutical fentanyl compounds, and opium are the most common illegal opioids in the United States.
  • Heroin purity has increased dramatically over the years from about 10% to more than 30% pure.
  • People who use heroin no longer have to inject it to get the effect or to overdose. It can be sniffed, snorted, or smoked.
  • Illegal fentanyl and analogues (drugs with similar chemical formulas) are mostly produced in China and smuggled in to the United States.
  • These drugs may be blended into heroin and cocaine (powder and crack cocaine) or stamped into counterfeit pills sold as “prescription” opioids or counterfeit sedatives.
  • Current conditions have made use of street drugs more dangerous than ever before.
  • People can die from an opioid overdose of pharmaceutically produced opioids, heroin, illegal opioids, or a combination.

Image of a red cross.An opioid overdose can be reversed if the antidote, naloxone (NARCAN®), is administered in time. This medication works for an overdose involving any opioid, including prescription drugs and heroin. Injected naloxone, or the intranasal form, NARCAN®, is widely available in most states. In the case of an overdose, Call 911!

Treatment for Opioid Addiction

There are effective treatments for opioid addiction. People are more successful when FDA-approved medications are used in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies. This is known as medication-assisted treatment (MAT). People have a choice of three approved medications—methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone—to support their recovery from opioid addiction. Misconceptions about MAT, such as “it substitutes one addiction for another,” are not correct. MAT helps people get back to their lives by decreasing withdrawal symptoms, cravings, relapses, and overdose, giving them a chance to recover. People undergoing MAT can drive, work, think, and function normally. MAT is provided in inpatient settings and at specially licensed outpatient clinics. It also can be prescribed by qualified physicians to take at home for up to 30 days at a time or even taken as a monthly injection.

Problem opioid use can be treated. The sooner people ask for help, the better. To locate help in your community for yourself, a co-worker, or a loved one, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website at www.samhsa.gov or call SAMHSA’s free, confidential, 24/7 National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

This program was developed in conjunction with the Job-Site Safety Institute and Advocates for Human Potential.