All drugs of abuse target the brain’s reward system by flooding the circuit with dopamine

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Opioids affect the brain to increase pleasant feelings and reduce pain. They get their name from opium, a drug made from the poppy plant. Opioid medications are prescribed to treat pain and sometimes for other health problems such as severe coughing. Heroin is an illegal opioid that is smoked, snorted, or injected to get a good feeling, often called a “rush” or “high.”

People also sometimes seek this feeling by taking large doses of prescription opioids. Opioids also slow down breathing and heartbeat, sometimes causing death.

If you take opioids all the time, you can become tolerant to them. This means that more of the drug is needed to obtain its effects. It is also possible to become dependent on opioids. This means that if you stop taking them, you will feel sick. This sickness is called withdrawal. Dependence is not the same as addiction, but sometimes dependence leads to addiction. The signs of addiction are:

  • Craving—The mind develops an overwhelming desire for the drug.
  • Loss of control—It becomes harder to say no to using the drug. Use is compulsive and continues even though the drug causes harm.
Tolerance and dependence are common side effects of prescribed opioid medication that can be managed under a doctor’s care.

Tolerance and dependence also are side effects from misuse of opioids. Addiction is not likely to develop in a person using medication properly, but this sometimes happens. Addiction usually occurs through misuse. Some people are at higher risk of addiction because of their genes, temperament, or personal situation.


Not everyone who uses opioids gets addicted. However, it is difficult to stop using opioids after you have become addicted because the cravings are so strong and the fear of withdrawal is so great.


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