Skip directly to search Skip directly to A to Z list Skip directly to navigation Skip directly to page options Skip directly to site content

Opioid Basics

Opioid Drugs

Opioids are a class of drugs used to reduce pain.

Prescription opioids

Prescription opioids can be prescribed by doctors to treat moderate to severe pain, but can also have serious risks and side effects.

Common types are oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), morphine, and methadone.


Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever. It is many times more powerful than other opioids and is approved for treating severe pain, typically advanced cancer pain.1 Illegally made and distributed fentanyl has been on the rise in several states.


Heroin is an illegal opioid. Heroin use has increased across the U.S. among men and women, most age groups, and all income levels.2

Opioid Overdoses

Understanding the Epidemic

	From 1999 to 2013, the amount of prescription opioids dispensed in the U.S. nearly quadrupled.

The number of drug overdose deaths has never been higher, and the majority of these deaths (more than six out of ten in 2015) involved opioids.2

Overdose Prevention

	Almost 2 million Americans abused or were dependent on prescription opioids in 2014.

It is important to reduce exposure to opioids and prevent abuse, while also providing treatment and preventing overdose death.

Commonly Used Terms

Opioid use disorder

A problematic pattern of opioid use that causes clinically significant impairment or distress. A diagnosis is based on specific criteria such as unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control use, as well as use resulting in social problems and a failure to fulfill obligations at work, school, or home. Opioid use disorder has also been referred to as “opioid abuse or dependence” or “opioid addiction.”

Physical dependence

Adaptation to a drug that produces symptoms of withdrawal when the drug is stopped.


Reduced response to a drug with repeated use.

Drug misuse

The use of prescription drugs without a prescription, or in a manner other than as directed by the prescriber.


Injury to the body that happens when a drug is taken in excessive amounts. An overdose can be fatal or nonfatal.

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)

Treatment for opioid use disorder combining the use of medications (methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone) with counseling and behavioral therapies.



  1. Algren D, Monteilh C, Rubin C, et al. Fentanyl-associated fatalities among illicit drug users in Wayne County, Michigan (July 2005-May 2006). Journal Of Medical Toxicology: Official Journal of the American College Of Medical Toxicology [serial online]. March 2013; 9(1):106-115.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Increases in Drug and Opioid-Involved Overdose Deaths, United States, 2010-2015. MMWR 2016.

Assess. Manage. Monitor. Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain