heroinAn opioid drug doesn’t look inherently dangerous. It doesn’t smoke, smell bad, or change color when exposed to the sunlight. Drugs like this don’t come with fancy bells and whistles that indicate that the substance is somehow unstable and not to be trusted. Drugs like this can seem downright benign, in fact.

But experts suggest that opiates (and opioids, which are their close cousins) are some of the most powerful drugs available in the marketplace today. Just glancing at the statistics helps to prove that point.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, about nine percent of the population admits to abusing opiates/opioids at one point in their lifespans. That’s a large number of people, and it’s likely that these people never intended to abuse drugs. Instead, it’s likely that these people simply wanted to either relieve pain or experience joy. Unfortunately, the drugs they chose to accomplish those tasks may have been stronger than expected.

Understanding the Terms

Drugs in the opiate class originate from poppy plants. The gooey sap inside the pods of mature flowers is removed, processed, manipulated and pressed into products that can be smoked, eaten, sniffed or injected. Among all of the opiate drugs available, heroin is possibly the most notorious, and, per the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), very addictive.

Heroin is sometimes difficult to get in a pure form, and it has painkilling abilities that could prove useful to some people. So chemists set to work and learned that they could make synthetic versions of drugs that worked a lot like heroin in the human body. These medications didn’t come from plants, but they had chemical structures that were very similar to heroin.

When people used these drugs, they worked in the body and the brain much like heroin. They seemed useful, and suddenly, there was a big demand for these painkillers. More and more were developed, and now, there are all kinds of these drugs, known as opioids, available. The National Laboratory Certification Program suggests that these are the most common:

  • Codeine
  • Hydrocodone
  • Hydromorphone
  • Oxycodone
  • Oxymorphone

These are prescription medications commonly given to people in intense pain. Often, people given these medications are told that they could be risky and could cause addictions. However, due to the way these drugs work, addictions aren’t at all unusual in those who take them.

A Quick Release

Opiates (which will be used interchangeably with opioids for the rest of this article) are classified as dangerous drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration because they come with a high risk of dependence, according to PsychCentral. That danger comes about, in part, due to the speed at which these drugs work.

There are receptors for opiates all over the human body. Many are deep inside the tissues of the brain, and opiates have a unique ability to pass from the bloodstream into the brain almost instantaneously. That means people who take these drugs go from feeling normal to feeling profoundly altered in just minutes, and the experience is almost unforgettable.

That feeling is often described as “blissful” or “wonderful,” but it also could be called simply “rewarding.” That’s because, according to the NIDA, the portion of the brain most impacted by opiates handles issues of reward. This is the part of the brain that’s designed to record moments of sheer happiness. It’s an evolutionary trait that allows us to remember things that are good, so we can find them and get them again when we need them. On that first blast of opiates, the brain is flooded with signals of pleasure, and the reward center records each and every signal.

Hijacking the brain’s reward center means the brain learns to remember the pleasure the drug can bring. All that data is stored deep down in the brain, and when something terrible happens, that reward center calls out for more drugs. That addiction begins with a biochemical process that’s difficult or impossible to control.

There are more difficulties with this chemical process, as the first high that comes with opiate exposure is difficult to replicate.


It’s hard to know what will happen to these people when they develop a tolerance to heroin. The nature of addiction prompts people to keep looking for new solutions and new drugs to try. With each dose they take, they’re driving up the need for a bigger hit.

Unfortunately, as this process unfolds, people who take heroin may not be aware of the danger. As the National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment points out, people addicted to opiates simply feel good. They don’t experience sickness or nausea, as might people who drink too much alcohol, and they may not hallucinate or become disoriented, as might people who take in hallucinogenic drugs. They just don’t experience the kinds of negative physical feedback that could warn them that something bad is happening. They just feel good, so they may not see the danger they’re facing.

But these drugs really can be dangerous. In addition to causing euphoria and pleasure, these drugs also suppress the body’s vital functions. As people drift off into a high, their breathing rates slow down dramatically. They could seem as though they’re asleep, but their skin may be cool to the touch, and it may be tinged with a blue color. They may be difficult to awaken or arouse, and they may even foam at the mouth just a bit. Without medical attention, provided immediately, people like this can lose their lives to addiction. And all the while, they may feel no pain at all.

This loss of life is a common part of the opiate addiction process. It’s reaching the level of epidemic in this country, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that 46 people die from an exposure to prescription painkillers each and every day. Many more die from overdosing on heroin. Each day, there are stories in almost every newspaper in the country about the dangers of addiction, and those who have lost the struggle.

Common Concerns

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Since stories about loss of life are so common, and since they’re so widely reported, it’s easy to assume that the number of people addicted to these drugs will go down each year. After all, when the information about addiction dangers is so prevalent, it might be easy to simply choose a different way to feel happy about life. It may seem like a good theory, but unfortunately, the statistics don’t bear it out.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration conducts surveys each year to determine the scope of drug use in this country. In 2011, 369,000 people admitted to past-year heroin abuse. In 2012, that number rose to 438,000. In 2011, 1,370,000 people admitted to past-year prescription painkiller abuse. In 2012, that number rose to 1,569,000.

Clearly, even though the information about the addictiveness of opiates is readily available, there are people who continue to dabble in these drugs each year. Since these drugs are so powerful, those who dabble might become those with addictions.

It’s certainly a serious situation, but there’s a lot to be hopeful about. For example, even as the number of people who are addicted has continued to rise, so has the number of treatments experts say can be of immense assistance. Doctors know of all sorts of proven therapies that can help people address an addiction, and they can build on new sobriety with therapies that can teach people how to stay in control of their urges, so they can stay sober for good.

If someone you love is abusing an opioid, we’d like to help start your family on the road to recovery. Our evidence-based therapies can help the person you love to both understand how the addiction started and what will need to be done to recover from it. Please call. We have so much to share with you.