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Opioids: Heroin and Prescription Painkillers

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs made from opium. They include illegal drugs such as heroin, as well as prescription medications used to treat pain.

Some common prescription opioids are:

  • Oxycodone (Oxycontin, Percodan, Percocet)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet, Norco, Zohydro)
  • Morphine (Kadian, Avinza, MS Contin)
  • Fentanyl (Duragesic, Fentora)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid, Exalgo)
  • Methadone (Dolophine)
  • Oxymorphone (Opana)

Heroin is sold as a white, off-white, or brown powder; it also can take the form of a sticky black substance (“black tar” heroin). The drug can be snorted, injected into a vein, or smoked (often by being heated on aluminum foil and inhaled through a straw). Prior to injecting it, users may dissolve it by burning it in a spoon.

Opioids work by reducing the perception of pain and stimulating the brain’s “reward center.”

Opioids work by reducing the perception of pain and stimulating the brain’s “reward center,” producing a feeling of euphoria. Side effects include drowsiness, mental confusion, nausea, constipation, and, depending upon the dosage, slowed (or even stopped) breathing*. Other consequences include a lack of interest in activities and school or work, decreased attention to personal hygiene, and needing to take more and more of the drug to achieve the same effect (also called “tolerance”).

Effects of Heroin or Prescription Drug Abuse

Opioid addiction can develop from taking opioids on a regular basis, even in patients who are prescribed opioids for a legitimate medical problem. Some people may begin crushing the pills to snort or inject the drug, or they may switch to heroin, which produces an effect on the brain that is indistinguishable from that of opioid painkillers.

When people are addicted, seeking and using opioids can become one of their primary purposes in life. They may become so preoccupied with the drug that they let relationships with family and friends deteriorate. Withdrawal symptoms such as muscle and bone pain, chills, nausea, kicking movements, severe anxiety, and a strong craving for the drug can make discontinuing opioid use difficult without medical treatment.


“I got a prescription for painkillers. I became addicted to the medication I was taking to deal with the pain from the car accident. The next ten years were lost to painkillers and my heroin habit.”

Debbie, Phoenix House Alum

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According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. is in the midst of a severe epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose deaths. Overdose deaths involving opioid painkillers increased to about 17,000 deaths per year in 2010—four times the number in 1999. This increase coincided with a nearly fourfold increase in prescribed opioids for the treatment of pain.

Research now shows that the risk of addiction and tolerance generally make opioids a poor choice of treatment for chronic pain. These powerful medications are better suited for short-term acute pain or to ease end-of-life suffering.

Signs that Someone Needs Treatment for Opioid Addiction

Here are questions to ask if you’re concerned that you or someone you love—a spouse, child, parent, or friend—may have a problem with opioids.

  • Are they constantly thinking about opioids—how much they have and when they can take their next dose?
  • Do they need to take more and more to achieve the same effect?
  • Have they been unsuccessful in their efforts to taper off?
  • Have they sought opioids through other means—by switching to heroin, stealing, or using someone else’s medication—when they were unable to get a prescription?
  • Do they feel less interested in doing things they used to enjoy—such as socializing, hobbies, and engaging in family and community life?
  • Have they been experiencing problems with concentration, memory, and staying awake?
  • Have they been letting their personal hygiene go?
  • Have they ever tried to quit but couldn’t?

If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, you or your loved one may have a problem. If the answer is “yes” to more than one question, it’s highly likely that a problem exists.


Phoenix House is committed to helping individuals and their families recover from opioid addiction. We offer both residential and outpatient programs at a variety of locations, as well as aftercare and ongoing recovery support. We treat the whole person with an individualized treatment plan that meets each client’s unique needs and provide care at every stage of recovery.

The first stage is usually withdrawal and stabilization (commonly known as “detox”), which helps clients safely discontinue their opioid use while minimizing withdrawal symptoms. Medication-assisted treatment uses medications like buprenorphine and Suboxone to help clients control opioid cravings, allowing them to feel and function normally.

While these types of treatment literally can be lifesavers for people struggling with opioid addiction, they usually are not enough; they are part of a continuum of care that also includes individual and group counseling. All of our programs use evidence-based practices to help clients address the root causes of their addiction and acquire the tools for lasting recovery.


“All my money from work went to heroin and I started using it wherever and whenever I could… Phoenix House showed me recovery is possible. It gave me my health and my life back.”

Alex, Phoenix House Alum

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We Can Help

If you are concerned about your loved one’s opioid use or your own, we encourage you to reach out to us. We are here to help you 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our compassionate, qualified staff can provide a confidential evaluation to help you determine if opioid use is a problem, and how we can best meet you or your loved one’s individual needs.

*Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse