What are Opiate/Opioid Painkillers?

Opiate/opioid painkillers are medicines with effects similar to opium. They act by stimulating opioid receptors in the brain and nervous system. There are a large number of opiate/opioid medicines including codeine, morphine, dihydrocodeine, methadone, buprenorphine and diamorphine (also known as heroin). Opium comes from the flower of the opium poppy and has been used for many hundreds of years to treat pain, sleeplessness and diarrhoea. Increasingly the terms opiate and opioid are used interchangeably when referring to these drugs. Opiate is sometimes used to refer only to those drugs derived directly or indirectly from natural opium. However, they all act on the opioid receptor in the body.

Opiate painkillers are available either from doctors on prescription; or, in relatively low doses over-the-counter, at a pharmacy, combined with aspirin, ibuprofen or paracetamol. They are intended to be used for a limited period of time to treat pain that does not respond to standard effective painkillers like aspirin, ibuprofen and paracetamol.

Although opiate painkillers will vary in how powerful they are, they are all sedative painkillers that can depress the nervous system, and so slow down body functions and reduce physical and psychological pain. They can also be highly addictive.

Although they are normally safe to take if you follow your doctor’s/pharmacists instructions, some people who have used opiate painkillers regularly become dependent on them. If they are taken primarily to get high and to feel better, the risk of addiction will be greater.

The key effects and risks of opiate painkillers include:

  • Pain relief.
  • Feelings of well-being, relaxation and sleepiness.
  • Constipation.
  • Suppressed coughing.
  • Nausea, vomiting, sweating, itching, mood swings and feelings of lethargy
  • Addiction.
  • In overdose, breathing stops.

What do opiate painkillers look like?

Opiate painkillers are available in a wide range of forms of various colours. The most common are tablets, capsules and syrups/linctus, and as solutions for injection. Less common forms include lozenges, nasal sprays, suppositories and skin patches.