Sara Bellum
September 4 2013

This past Drug Facts Chat Day, teens from across the country submitted their questions about drug abuse to NIDA scientists. A teen from Walter Johnson High School in Maryland asked, “What types of opioids are there?

In general, opioids are psychoactive chemicals that work by binding to opioid receptors in the body. These receptors are found principally in the central and peripheral nervous system as well as the gastrointestinal tract and can produce both the good and bad effects of opioid use.

Many teens don’t know that there are illegal opioids (like heroin) as well as legal opioids that are prescribed for pain relief (like hydrocodone, which has the brand name of Vicodin). This is why common painkillers like Vicodin are so often abused—because they provide a “high” while relieving pain.

Here are the main types of opioids:

  • Natural opiates are alkaloids, nitrogen-containing base chemical compounds that occur in plants such as in the resin of the opium poppy. Natural opiates include morphine, codeine, and thebaine.
  • Semi-synthetic opioids are opioids created in labs from natural opiates. Semi-synthetic opioids include hydromorphone, hydrocodone, and oxycodone (the prescription drug OxyContin), as well as heroin, which is made from morphine.
  • Fully synthetic opioids are opioids that are completely manmade, including fentanyl, pethidine, levorphanol, methadone, tramadol, and dextropropoxyphene.

Some opioids (e.g., morphine, codeine, OxyContin) are used by doctors to treat various things, such as pain after surgery. But opioids also have addictive properties and negative health effects that make them dangerous when abused.

Do you have other questions about types of drugs? Tell us in comments.

Want to learn more? Read the blog post, “What Does It Mean to ‘Misuse’ Opioids?”

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