Opiates, Opioids and Painkillers

Category: Depressant

Also know as:

Buprenorphine, Diamorphine, Dihydrocodeine, Morphine


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).

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.

Opiate painkillers are available in a wide range of forms and 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.

How it is taken

Opiate painkillers can be swallowed, injected, snorted, sucked or absorbed through the skin or bowel. They are used mainly to treat moderate to severe pain. This can range from relieving acute back pain, to use for broken bones, and for people who are being treated for cancer.


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 we have not listed all their medical uses, they are often aimed to have the following effects: relief of pain, reduced coughing and the feelings of well-being, relaxation and sleepiness.


In overdose, suppression of normal breathing, and risk of respiratory arrest (when you stop breathing altogether).

There is a greater risk of overdose and death if you are mixing opiate painkillers with other drugs that suppress breathing such as alcohol, benzodiazepines (like diazepam or Valium), and/or other opiate drugs. There’s a particular risk of death due to inhaling vomit – because opiate painkillers can sedate you, can add to the risk of vomiting, and can stop you from coughing properly. The vomit blocks the airways or later leads to pneumonia.

Injecting any opiate painkiller can do nasty damage to your veins and arteries, and this can lead to gangrene (death of body tissue, usually a finger, toe or a limb), blood clots/thromboses and infections.

There are also risks from sharing needles, syringes and other equipment used for injecting – with the danger of developing serious tissue infections or sharing viral infections like hepatitis B, hepatitis C or HIV.

Any opiate painkiller can be addictive and produce ‘cravings’ and a psychological desire to keep on using. Tolerance can also build, so that users have to take more just to get the same effects or to avoid unpleasant withdrawals. This is one of the reasons opiates can become ineffective for long-term chronic pain.

Legal Status

Strong opiate painkillers are only available on prescription and most are controlled under of the Misuse of Drugs Act and are classified as Class A or B drugs. So unless an opiate painkiller has been prescribed to you, it’s illegal to have, it’s also illegal to give away or sell opiate painkillers.

Depending on the circumstances, possession of a class A opiate painkiller which has not been prescribed for you, could get you community service or up to 7 years in prison and/or an unlimited fine. The unauthorised possession of a class B opiate painkiller, not prescribed, could get you community service or up to 5 years in prison and/or an unlimited fine.

Depending on the circumstances, supplying someone else with a class A or B opiate painkiller, including your friends, could get you the maximum penalty of a jail sentence, ranging from 14 years to life and/or an unlimited fine.

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