What is it?

Opioids are a category of drugs that include some types of prescription medications as well as illicit drugs such as heroin. Opioids are also called narcotics. The term opiate refers to a drug derived from natural opium, while opioid includes synthetic and semi-synthetic substances created to have similar effects.

Opioids bind to the receptors in the body (especially in the brain) to reduce sensations of pain (pain management). Opioids also slow down body systems, and if misused, can lead to incidents of overdose and death. The prolonged use of opioids (whether with a prescription or not) may lead to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when someone stops using opioids.

What does it do?

Prescription opioids are strong pain medicines that require a healthcare provider to prescribe them. Over the counter pain relievers are not opioids. The goal of prescription opioids is to relieve pain, and they are generally safe and effective when taken for a short time as prescribed. However, these medicines can have very serious side effects if not used correctly. One of the effects of opioids is to slow down breathing and other body systems. Interactions with other medications or with alcohol can cause dangerous symptoms. It is important to discuss any prescription and your particular health issues with your doctor. There are several types of non-opioid pain relief medicines, as well as non-pharmaceutical strategies to reduce and manage pain symptoms.

An illegal drug made from the opium poppy plant, heroin is highly addictive. People using heroin may snort, smoke, swallow, or inject it intravenously. It is commonly sold as a white or brown powder or a dark, sticky, tar-like substance. Heroin may also be pressed into pills that look like prescription medicines, or combined with the even more potent synthetic fentanyl. As an illegal drug, heroin is very dangerous because of the unknown potency of each batch and the risk of overdose. For more information on heroin, click here.

Fentanyl is a very potent opioid that is used as a medication for severe pain. Related analogues, such as carfentanil, are even stronger and are generally used as a tranquilizer for large zoo animals. Both of these substances are also made in clandestine labs and sold as illegal drugs, often mixed with heroin or other drugs. Due to the dramatic increase in potency as compared to morphine, these drugs create a high risk of death due to overdose.

Effects on the Brain: 

A person that is accustomed to the presence of opioids will experience uncomfortable symptoms if opioids are not regularly taken. With ongoing use, the body develops a tolerance, which means more and more opioids are needed to avoid pain and withdrawal. As a person’s tolerance increases, the severity of the withdrawal symptoms they will experience when they stop taking opioids also increases. For some, withdrawal symptoms include severe flu-like symptoms, physical pain, problems sleeping, and strong cravings for more opioids. While not technically life-threatening, opioid withdrawal symptoms are often so powerful that a person seeks out more opioids, and may overdose.

An opioid overdose occurs when the amount of opioids in a person’s body is too high and begins to shut down their life-sustaining functions, such as breathing. The overdose reversal drug, naloxone, is available for people (friends, family, first responders, service providers) who may be in a position to assist in the case of an overdose. It is important to act fast and recognize the signs of an overdose .


Hydrocodone, oxycodone, codeine and fentanyl are common types of prescription opioids that are abused. Common slang term for prescription opioids are Sizzurp, Purple Drank, Cody (Codeine), O.C., Oxy, (Oxycodone), China, White, (Fentanyl).

The common slang terms for heroin are extensive and numerous (H, Tar, Junk, Dragon, Dope). 

  • Heroin A Medline Plus health page with comprehensive information, including overdose, withdrawal, intoxication, photos, more.
  • Heroin Facts For Teens From AbovetheInfluence.com.
  • Heroin: NIDA Drugs of Abuse Publications from NIDA, research reports, infofacts, notes, monographs, news.
  • Iowa's Good Samaritan Law  Learn about Iowa's Good Samaritan Law and available media.
  • Iowa Opioid Impacts and Solutions (IDPH) An interactive mapping tool of Iowa opioid data.
  • Opioids National Institute on Drug Abuse page on opioids.
  • Opioid Addiction Someone addicted to opioids is a real person with a real illness. And they deserve to be treated humanely, and with understanding of the challenges they're going through.
  • Naloxone Did you know you can purchase naloxone at your local pharmacy without a prescription?
  • Prescription Drugs Are Still Drugs Did you know four out of five new heroin users started with prescription drugs like Oxycodone?
  • RX Pain Medications: Know the Options - Get the Facts A series of 13 fact sheets designed to increase awareness of the risks associated with prescription opioid use and misuse, as well as to educate patients who are prescribed opioids for pain about the risks and to provide resources on methods for alternative pain management from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  • Women and Opioids Do you know the group of women most at risk for an opioid overdose?



"Prescription Drugs are Still Drugs" and "What People Know" - A message from the Iowa Department of Public Health

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