Opiates are substances that are naturally derived from opium, a drug which is extracted from the unripe seed pods of certain poppy plants. People have used opium for medicinal and recreational purposes for centuries. The potent painkiller morphine and cough suppressant codeine are two well-known opiates. Opiates are part of a class of drugs called opioids, which includes prescription painkillers like oxycodone (Oxycontin, Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lorcet), and fentanyl (Actiq, Fentora). Heroin also falls into the opioid drug class as it is derived from morphine and was originally created as a cough suppressant.
Opiates are depressants, meaning they slow down the body’s systems, meaning that messages from the brain to the rest of the body are affected, including respiration. Opiates and opioid painkillers affect the mu-opioid receptors (MORs) in the brain and body to reduce the sensation of pain. Many opiates and opioids are used in the medical setting for pain relief during or after surgical procedures or to aid in a serious injury recovery. However, opiates and opioids are highly addictive substances, and some people are more prone to developing an addiction to these even if they have been prescribed by a doctor for pain relief. When misused—taking a prescription that wasn’t written for you or taking more than prescribed or for longer than prescribed—an opiate addiction or opioid use disorder can develop.
The body will adjust to operating with opioids in its system comes to depend on them to function normally. People may become both physically dependent on opiates, meaning their body needs the substances to avoid withdrawal symptoms like body aches, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, irritability, and anxiety. In addition to physical dependence, the person may be dependent on taking opioids as a way to deal with stressful situations or to escape emotional pain. Once addiction develops, the person may begin to display certain signs of an opioid use disorder and need professional help to recover.