Opiates is a term also often used interchangeably with opioids that refers to a class of drugs prescribed for the treatment of acute pain. While opiates do have therapeutic benefits, they’re unfortunately also the number one cause of drug overdoses in the United States. In 2015, there were more than 20,000 estimated deaths caused by prescription painkillers, and nearly 13,000 deaths related to the use of heroin.

What Are Opiates?

Before looking specifically at which opiates are the most commonly abused, it can be helpful to have an overview as to what opiates are, what they’re used for and what effects they can have.

While opiates are used to treat pain, they also have highly addictive properties.

Some of the most common prescription opiates include morphinemethadone, and codeine. Illegal street opiates include heroin and opium.

When someone is legitimately prescribed opiates, it’s generally for the treatment of mild to severe pain. These medications are most often given to patients following a serious injury or surgery, or for chronic pain. They may also be given to patients who are terminally ill.

The most common way people take prescription opiates is in pill form. Illicit opiates, like heroin are often ingested by injecting, snorting or smoking the substance.

Why Are Opiates Addictive?

There is a very high potential for abuse with opiates and they are incredibly addictive. Even when someone has a prescription for an opioid painkiller that they take legitimately under the instruction of their doctor, there is a significant likelihood of abuse or opioid addiction.

Before looking at which opiates are the most commonly abused, it’s key to consider why they are so addictive. When you take an opiate, the drug enters your bloodstream and floods your body with an unnatural amount of dopamine and endorphins, causing feelings of pleasure and euphoria.

When people continue to use opiates, their body reduces the natural creation of dopamine and endorphins, making it difficult for the person to experience feelings of pleasure without the use of the opiates. Long-term opiate use can also affect the body’s ability to react to natural dopamine and endorphins.

Which Opiates Are the Most Commonly Abused?

Below is a brief list of commonly abused opiates:

  • Vicodin: Also known by the generic name hydrocodone/acetaminophen, Vicodin is one of the most commonly abused opiates. Vicodin is prescribed to treat severe pain, often following surgery or an injury. Unfortunately, this medication has the tendency to quickly become something people abuse, even when they’re initially prescribed it by a doctor. It’s not just the most abused opioid in the U.S.; it’s also the most abused of all prescription drugs in the country.
  • Heroin: Heroin is an illegal, synthesized type of morphine that can be injected, smoked or snorted. While using pure forms of heroin can be risky, the drug can be particularly dangerous when cut with other substances.
  • Morphine: Another one of the most commonly abused opiates is morphine. Morphine is a painkiller extracted from poppy plants. It’s often used in medical settings and given orally or intravenously.
  • CodeineCodeine is an opioid chemically similar to morphine. Codeine is also one of the most commonly abused opiates. Like many other prescription opioids, codeine is often used to relieve pain.
  • FentanylFentanyl is a drug that’s become increasingly abused over recent years, and now it represents one of the most commonly abused opioids. Fentanyl is a narcotic that is similar in many ways to heroin, and it acts quickly as a sedative and reliever of severe pain.
  • HydrocodoneHydrocodone is an opiate that is used as both a pain reliever and cough suppressant.

Along with the opioids that are most commonly abused, in general, four out of five new heroin users began with prescription painkillers. Many adolescents obtain pain relievers from a friend or relative.

Ultimately, the best thing that can happen to anyone who is abusing opiates is receiving professional opioid addiction treatment. All the drugs listed above and other opiates are incredibly difficult to stop using once addiction develops.

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Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Conor Sheehy, PharmD, BCPS, CACP
Dr. Sheehy completed his BS in Molecular Biology at the University of Idaho and went on to complete his Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) at the University of Washington in Seattle. Read more
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The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.