Opioid Basics

This section will help you understand what opioids are, how they work, and the different factors that contribute to an opioid overdose.

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Opioids are a group of mind-altering (psychoactive) chemicals, that are often used to help manage pain. They change our perceptions of pain and slow down our breathing, heart rate, thoughts and actions. Opioids are either created in a lab or are present in nature (in plant form).

Opioids come in different forms:

  • Tablet, pill or liquid in the mouth
  • Spray into nose
  • Skin patch
  • Injected into a vein
  • Injected into a muscle
  • Implanted pump


How do opioids work

Opioids attach to receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and other areas of the body to reduce feelings of pain. These receptors also control breathing, so if you take too much, your breathing may slow down or stop all together.  This is considered an opioid overdose. If you are not able to breathe for even a few minutes, you may suffer severe brain damage, or even death. Knowing the signs of overdose and how to respond can save lives.

It is possible to use opioids safely for pain if they are manufactured safely and an accurate dose is taken. This is why opioids are a controlled medication and require a doctor’s prescription.





There are many factors that can cause an opioid overdose.

Your individual characteristics:

  • Health status: Your health can influence how opioids affect your body. For example, if you have a weak liver or kidney, it may take longer for your body to remove opioids from your blood. Other health issues that can play a part in overdosing include: smoking, infections, high blood pressure, diabetes, respiratory illnesses, compromised immune system, lack of sleep, not drinking enough water (dehydration), not eating well (malnourishment), and poor mental health in general.
  • Tolerance: A person who has never taken opioids may need only a small dose to experience the same effect as a regular user. And, the way you tolerate the drug can change even after just a few days of not taking it. That is why people who have recently left detox/treatment, hospital or jail may be at higher risk of an opioid overdose.
  • Genetics: The way a body breaks down a drug is different for every individual.
  • Other medications: Your liver processes all the chemicals in your body. The more medications or drugs you use, the longer it will take for the liver to breakdown an opioid.


Quality and quantity: When an opioid is made in a place that is regulated like prescription medications are, you know the exact purity and amount. But, when they are not made legally, as are many substances sold on the street, the dosage and purity are unknown. As a result, it is nearly impossible to predict how they may affect your body. And the effects will probably be different each time you buy and use a new mixture. Also, if you use opioids and alcohol or other substances at the same time, it can greatly change how your body reacts. Mixing substances can increases the likelihood of an overdose.


Route of Consumption -The way an opioid enters your body may affect the chances of an overdose. Opioids must enter the bloodstream before a person can feel the effect. If the opioid is in pill form, it has to be digested through the stomach and intestine before entering the blood and eventually reaching your brain. This can take several hours. On the other hand, if the opioid is injected directly into the bloodstream you will feel the effects in minutes. This means that people who are consuming opioids may need to be observed for different time periods to make sure that they do not overdose.


Illustration describing the different uses of opioids (dependent, experimental, social, problem/harmful, none, and regular use).

What Next?

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