Opioids Quick Overview

Since 1993

Definition of Opioids

Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), codeine, morphine and many others. These drugs are chemically related and interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain.

Opioid pain relievers are generally safe when taken for a short time and as prescribed by a doctor but because they produce euphoria in addition to pain relief, they can be misused (taken in a different way or in a larger quantity than prescribed, or taken without a doctor’s prescription). Regular use—even as prescribed by a doctor—can lead to dependence and, when misused, opioid pain relievers can lead to overdose incidents and deaths. (National Institute on Drug Abuse)

opioid awareness

How We Got Here

In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers, and healthcare providers began to prescribe them at greater rates. This subsequently led to widespread diversion and misuse of these medications before it became clear that these medications could, indeed, be highly addictive.3,4 Opioid overdose rates began to increase.

In 2015, more than 33,000 Americans died as a result of an opioid overdose, including prescription opioids, heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid.1 That same year, an estimated 2 million people in the United States suffered from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers, and 591,000 suffered from a heroin use disorder (not mutually exclusive).5 Here is what we know about the opioid crisis:

Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them.6

Between 8 and 12 percent develop an opioid use disorder.79

An estimated 4 to 6 percent who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin.79

About 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.7

This issue has become a public health crisis with devastating consequences including increases in opioid misuse and related overdoses, as well as the rising incidence of neonatal abstinence syndrome due to opioid use and misuse during pregnancy. The increase in injection drug use has also contributed to the spread of infectious diseases including HIV and Hepatitis C.

Addiction & Treatment

A person might be addicted to opioids if they crave the drug or feel like they can’t control the urge to take the drug. They may also be addicted if they keep using the drug without a doctor’s consent, even if the drug is causing trouble for them.  The trouble may be with a person’s health, finances, work or school, interaction with law enforcement, or relationships with family and friends. Friends and family may be aware of the addiction problem before the individual and may notice changes in the person's behavior.

The good news is that opioid addiction can be treated. Treatment helps people stop using the problem drug. It helps them get through withdrawal and cope with cravings. Treatment also helps the individual move away from other harmful behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, abusing other drugs and helps the individual address life issues they may have due to their addiction. These issues can range from feelings of low self-worth, a bad situation at work/home or associating with others who abuse drugs. In short, treatment helps people move into healthy, addiction-free lifestyles—a way of living referred to as recovery.

Treatment options for addiction depend on several factors, including what type of substance it is and how it effects the individual. Typically, treatment includes a combination of inpatient and outpatient programs, counseling (psychotherapy), self-help groups, pairing with individual sponsors and/or medication.

If you think that you, a friend or family member may be addicted to opioids, know that there is help available. There are many community organizations the are dedicated to helping people who have opioid addictions. They want people to succeed and will work to provide individuals with the tools and support that they need to quit and move on with their life.

About Opioid Overdose

Opioid Definition

Why Do People Overdose?

Opioid overdose can occur when a patient misunderstands the directions for use, accidentally takes an extra dose, or deliberately misuses a prescription opioid or an illicit drug such as heroin. Also at risk is the person who takes opioid medications prescribed for someone else, as is the individual who combines opioids — prescribed or illicit — with alcohol, certain other medications and even some over-the-counter products that depress breathing, heart rate and other functions of the central nervous system.

How To Avoid Opioid Overdose

  1. Take medication only if it has been prescribed to you by your doctor.
  2. Do not take more medication or take it more often than instructed.
  3. Call a doctor if your pain gets worse.
  4. Never mix pain medications with alcohol, sleeping pills or any illicit substance.
  5. Store your medication(s) in a safe place where children and pets cannot reach it.
  6. Learn the signs of an overdose and how to use naloxone to keep it from becoming fatal.
  7. Teach your family and friends how to respond to an overdose.
  8. Dispose of unused medication properly.
avoid opioid overdose

How to Obtain Nalozone

If someone in your life is struggling with opioid addiction, visit your local pharmacist to obtain Naloxone and keep it on hand for possible overdose emergencies. Naloxone is a medication that can reverse an overdose that is caused by an opioid drug (i.e. prescription pain medication or heroin). When administered during an overdose, Naloxone blocks the effects of opioids on the brain and restores breathing within two to eight minutes. Naloxone has been used safely by medical professionals for more than 40 years and has only one function: to reverse the effects of opioids on the brain and respiratory system in order to prevent death. In November 2016, Virginia implemented a statewide standing order for Naloxone. A standing order serves as a prescription for all Virginians who would like to obtain Naloxone. Virginia residents can now request Naloxone directly from the pharmacy without having to visit their doctor or medical provider first. More information on Naloxone can be found at www.getnaloxonenow.org.


Opioid Overdose and Naloxone Education (OONE) program for the Commonwealth of Virginia


REVIVE! provides training to professionals, stakeholders, family members and bystanders on how to recognize and respond to an opioid overdose emergency with the administration of Naloxone (Narcan ®).

REVIVE! trainings are between one hour and 30 minutes to two hours long. This training covers understanding opioids, how opioid overdoses happen, risk factors of opioid overdoses and how to respond to an opioid overdose emergency with the administration of Naloxone.

For information on upcoming REVIVE! trainings:

Alleghany Highlands Area

Contact Alleghany Highlands Community Services by phone at 540-965-2100.

Valley Area

Contact Erin Botkin at Valley Community Services Board by phone at 540-213-7599.

Lynchburg, VA Area

Contact Januwaa Davis at Horizon Behavioral Health by phone at 434-477-5464.

Proper Storage and Disposal

Properly Store Medications

As a parent, grandparent, or family member, it’s important that you organize and keep track of your medication. It’s also an excellent idea to lock up any controlled substances that have been prescribed for you. These include medications such as hydromorphone (Dilaudid®), oxycodone (OxyContin® and Percocet®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), and alprazolam (Xanax®).The theft and abuse of prescription medications is a serious problem.

You play a big role in keeping these powerful medications out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them. Since it is dangerous, as well as illegal, for anyone but you to use a controlled substance prescribed for you, a locked storage area can help keep a stranger or someone else from gaining access to them.   By keeping track of and locking up your medications you are helping to prevent an accidental injury, as well as do your part to stop the possible abuse of prescription medications.

Medication Drop Boxes

Medication take-back programs are a good way to safely dispose of most types of unneeded medications. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and our local law enforcement agencies periodically hosts Prescription Drug Take-Back events (typically in April and October) where collection sites are set up in our local communities for safe disposal of prescription drugs. Several of our local law enforcement agencies also have medication drop boxes at the police/sheriff’s departments that can be accessed anytime during regular business hours. For more information, please contact your local law enforcement agency.

Disposal in Household Trash

If no medication take-back programs or DEA-authorized collectors are available in your area, you can now obtain free drug disposal bags from the local health department. The bags allow for you to safely deactivate and dispose of medications in the privacy of your own home.  If there are no specific disposal instructions on the label, you can also follow these simple steps to dispose of most medications in the household trash:

  1. Mix medication (do not crush tablets or capsules) with an unpalatable substance such as dirt, kitty litter, or used coffee grounds;
  2. Place the mixture in a container such as a sealed plastic bag
  3. Throw the container in your household trash;
  4. Scratch out all personal information on the prescription label of your empty pill bottle or empty medication packaging to make it unreadable, then dispose of the container