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What Is An Opiate?

What is an opiate?  Opiates are drugs that relieve pain and also produce a sense of well-being and pleasure. The chemicals in opiates attach to particular proteins on the nerve cells of your brain and other organs, such as your spinal cord and gastrointestinal tract. The attached opiate chemicals cut off the feelings of pain. The chemical link with the receptor also triggers the same natural process that rewards you with pleasure when you carry out basic life functions like eating or having sex. Your brain manufactures its own opiate chemicals, for this purpose, although not in large quantities. 


Legally prescribed opiates are important in medicine because they relieve pain after surgery and other medical and dental procedures. The problem occurs when you take an opiate in the absence of a lot of pain. Then you can become used to the feelings of pleasure the drug produces, the “high,” which motivates you to have more of the drug. If you continue to use the drug repeatedly, you can develop a tolerance for it. To get the same “high,” you then need more and more of the drug. This is the addiction cycle. The need for “more and more” is also what can cause overdoses. 

Opiates also have physical side effects. They can make you drowsy, confused, nauseous, or constipated. They can also slow your breathing, reducing the amount of oxygen that reaches your brain, which can have bad effects such as brain damage. 

People who take legally prescribed opiates for severe pain for a long time can become dependent on the drug and suffer mild withdrawal symptoms when they suddenly stop taking the opiate. For the addict who stops taking opiates, the withdrawal symptoms can be severe. Early symptoms include sweating, insomnia, anxiety, muscle aches. Later symptoms include rapid heartbeat, nausea, cramps, and diarrhea. 

Legal and illegal opiates 

Opiates have been around for centuries. The opium derived from the seed pod of the poppy plant is the basis for manufacturing opiates, including heroin, morphine, and cocaine. The word opiate is used interchangeably with opioid, although technically the term opioid includes only the more recent synthetic drugs derived from natural opium. 

Heroin and opium are illegal opiates. Legal opiates available by prescription include Codeine, Fentanyl, Morphine, Oxycodone, Hydrocodone and others. Often addictions start with people abusing prescription pain killers and using them in higher concentrations than prescribed.

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