In 2017, American doctors wrote more than 191 million prescriptions for opioid medications. Chief among these are prescription opiates.

Although prescribing has fallen in recent years, opiates are often used in healthcare. What are they, and what are they used for? This comprehensive guide will tell you everything you need to know.


What Are Prescription Opiates?

Opiates are part of a drug class known as opioids. What are opioids? The term opioid refers to any drug, whether natural or made in a lab, that mimics the effects of opium.

These drugs are sometimes called narcotics. This term refers to their sedative effects. People using opioids often feel relaxed and drowsy, even falling asleep.


The definition of opiates singles them out from other opioids. The term opiate refers to substances derived from the opium poppy. They are natural and not made in a lab, unlike other drugs, which are synthetic.

Which drugs are opiates?

There are only a few natural opiates. These include:

  • Opium
  • Codeine
  • Morphine

Heroin is also considered an opiate since it’s naturally derived from opium. It’s an illegal substance, however, and never prescribed.

Some opioids, like hydrocodone, are also known as synthetic opiates. In classical terminology, however, the term opiate only refers to natural substances.

How Are They Taken?

Prescription opiates can be administered in many different ways. They are often given orally as a pill. They may also be delivered intravenously by a needle or an IV drip.

Some opiates are available as a skin patch. In some cases, opiates may be taken under the tongue. An implant may be available for some opiates.

Some people also crush pills to make a powder and then inhale opiates.

Who Takes Them?

Most opiates are legal and have legitimate medical purposes. They are often available only by prescription.

Legal opiates are most often prescribed for pain and coughs. A doctor may prescribe one of these drugs to a patient in pain. They are often used to control acute pain after surgery or injury.

People with chronic pain conditions may also use opiates.

It’s possible to develop dependency and addiction to prescription narcotics. Some people may misuse legal opioids in recreational settings.

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A Brief History of Prescription Opiates

People have used opioids derived from the opium poppy for centuries. Before the 19th century, only the natural opiates were available. As mentioned, morphine and codeine are derived from opium.

Heroin, another opiate, was synthesized in a lab. It was introduced in the early 20th century. It proved to be more powerful than morphine and, unfortunately, more addictive.

Throughout the 20th century, pharmaceutical companies continued to create new synthetic opioids. Many of these drugs, such as fentanyl, are more powerful than even heroin. They’re effective painkillers.

Pharmaceutical companies continued experimenting, hoping to find opioids that were not addictive.

All opioids, including prescription opiates, are powerfully addictive. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, more prescription opioids became available. Doctors were encouraged to prescribe them.

This has given rise to the current opioid epidemic in the United States and other countries.

Consequences of Prescription Opiate Abuse

As discussed, opioids are often prescribed for pain conditions. While they are powerful painkillers, they also have other effects on the mind and body. They can also take a toll on your health.

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Effects on the Mind and Body

Prescription opiates vary in terms of their effectiveness. Generally speaking, they produce similar effects on mind and body. You may notice:

  • Sedation
  • Lower heart rate
  • Slower breathing
  • Slower movements
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Impaired reaction time
  • Decreased pain perception
  • Increased perception of pleasure and euphoria

Opioids can cause other unpleasant side effects, such as constipation.

Short-Term and Long-Term Health Effects

Like all drugs, prescription opiates have both short and long-term health effects. In the short term, you may notice effects such as nausea and vomiting or constipation.

Other short-term effects include:

  • Overdose
  • Dependency
  • Tremors or shakes
  • Respiratory depression
  • Impaired reaction times
  • Increased sensitivity to pain
  • Daytime sedation and sleepiness
  • Collapsed veins, if injecting opiates

The long-term health effects of legal opiates are more concerning. They include:

  • Addiction
  • Liver damage
  • Drug tolerance
  • Major depression
  • Decreased immune function

People with addiction have a higher risk of infectious disease such as hepatitis. This is often spread through shared needles.

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Using Prescription Opiates With Other Drugs

Prescription opiates are common, so you may wonder if they’re safe to use with other medications. A doctor may prescribe more than one medication to help manage a health condition.

Which Drugs Are Commonly Used With Prescription Opiates?

Your physician may prescribe more than one opioid medication. It’s very common for people to use more than one opioid, especially if they’ve been taking them for a while.

Using more than one narcotic drug increases the risk of overdose and death.

Many people also use alcohol and opiates together. This is particularly common in recreational settings. Using opiates and alcohol together can be deadly.

Both of these drugs are depressants, which means they slow down the body’s vital functions. Using them together increases your risk of respiratory depression.

Some doctors prescribe benzodiazepines with opiates. These drugs are often used to treat conditions such as anxiety and insomnia. Like alcohol and opiates, they act as central nervous system depressants.

Taking opiates and benzodiazepines together can be dangerous or even fatal.

Treating Prescription Opiate Addiction

Prescription opiates are legal and have legitimate medical uses. They are powerful drugs, and people should use them with care and caution. Opioids are often regulated for these reasons.

Healthcare professionals are usually advised to limit patients’ use of opiate medications. This can help people avoid dependency and addiction to legal opiates and other drugs.

Nonetheless, opioids are often used to treat pain conditions. This can result in chronic use of opiates, often leading to addiction. There are other options for pain relief.

There are treatment options and ways to reduce your dependency on opiates. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, talk to the experts. They can help you begin your journey to recovery.