Opioid Facts for Teens
More FAQs About Opioids

This is Archived Content. This content is available for historical purposes only. It may not reflect the current state of science or language from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Find current research and publications at nida.nih.gov.

Do opioids show up on drug tests?

Just like other drugs, opioids can show up on a drug test within hours of being taken. Opioids, including heroin, can show up on a drug test for days, and in some cases weeks, after being taken.9,10 How long they stay in your system depends on how long a person has been taking the drug, the amount of drug they use, or the person’s metabolism (how your body handles the drug).

Is it safe to take opioids if you are pregnant?

Opioid use during pregnancy — even if taken as a doctor instructed — can lead to miscarriage or low birth weight. It can also cause neonatal abstinence syndrome, a medical condition where the baby is born dependent on opioids and has withdrawal symptoms after being born. If a pregnant woman tries to stop taking opioids suddenly without medical help, she can put the baby at risk. It is important for the mother to tell her doctor about all drugs she is taking or planning to take so that the baby has a greater chance of being born healthy. There are treatments that can help.

I have heard about something called fentanyl. What is that?

Fentanyl is an opioid drug that is 50 times more powerful than heroin. Medically, it is used to treat extreme pain and for surgeries. But now it’s being made illegally and is sometimes mixed with other drugs, leading to overdose.

Are opioids addictive?

Yes. Over time, opioid use can change the brain, leading to addiction. Addiction means a person continues to use a drug despite negative consequences, and actively tries to get more and more of the drug. Many people get addicted to opioids, leading to deadly overdoses — taking enough to make you stop breathing.

However, many people who take prescription opioids for pain become dependent, not addicted.  Dependence means your body has gotten used to the drug, and it will hurt and feel uncomfortable if you suddenly stop. Patients using prescription opioids should ask their doctors how to safely stop using them.

A person can be dependent on a drug without being addicted. But sometimes dependence can lead to addiction, if you don’t make an effort to stop taking them.

Can opioid addiction be treated?

Quitting opioids can be hard, but it is possible. There are three FDA-approved medicines to treat opioid addiction. Medicines like buprenorphine and methadone bind to the same receptors in the brain as prescription opioids to reduce cravings. Naltrexone is another medication that treats opioid addiction by preventing opioids from having an effect on the brain. Additionally, a medicine named lofexidine was recently approved to help lessen withdrawal symptoms for people who are trying to stop using opioids.

Counseling and therapy are also important to help people stop using opioids, rebuild relationships with friends and family, and build healthy life skills. A combination of behavioral therapy and medication has proven to be very effective in treating opioid addiction.

Doctors develop treatment plans to fit the unique needs of the patient.

Do opioids produce withdrawal symptoms when someone tries to quit using them?

Yes. The brain gets so used to the opioids that when someone stops taking them, they can go into withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms include sweating, shaking, vomiting, sleep problems, and diarrhea. The symptoms can be so severe that it can be hard for someone to stop using opioids, even if they want to. This is why it can take several tries to stop drug use.

Teen girl and parent in discussion

Can you overdose on opioids?

Yes, you can. In fact, overdose deaths have almost tripled in the last 15 years and the majority of these deaths involve opioids.11 One of the ways opioids work to relax your body is by slowing down your breathing. When misused, opioids can slow your breathing too much. This can cause you to stop breathing entirely and lead to an overdose. For some people, just one dose is enough to make them stop breathing.

Can you stop an opioid overdose?

Yes, if you act quickly. If you think a friend or family member has overdosed on opioids, call 911 so they can receive immediate medical attention. When paramedics arrive, they will likely give the person naloxone. Naloxone works to quickly block the effects of opioids. It is available as an injectable solution, an auto-injector, and a nasal spray.

Some states require a doctor to prescribe naloxone, but other states allow pharmacies to sell naloxone without a personal prescription. This lets friends and family members use it to save someone who is overdosing. But naloxone doesn't take the place of medical care, and after using it, the person who overdosed should immediately get medical help.

What can teenagers do to protect themselves?

Take charge of your own health. The best thing teenagers can do is to turn away from peer pressure to use opioids “for fun” and to only take opioids as prescribed by your doctor. Even then, opioids should be taken for as short a time as possible. If your doctor or dentist prescribes opioids for a painful condition, ask them how quickly you can stop taking them or if there are other medications to use instead.

Ongoing Research to Find Solutions

Researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health are exploring better ways to prevent and treat opioid misuse. They are looking at how opioids work on brain pathways, trying to figure out how to develop safer medicines. Ideally, they can develop a pain reliever as strong as an opioid that does not have the risk of addiction.

Researchers are also trying to find other ways to treat pain, like exercise techniques, massage therapy, and methods to stimulate key brain pathways without taking a medicine.

Scientists have also developed better ways to deliver medicines to the body. For example, there is now a device that sprays a medicine into the nose to block an overdose. New injection products and body implants can now be inserted into someone’s arm to deliver medication more slowly to treat opioid addiction for months, instead of having to take a pill daily or every other day.

What is being done to stop the overdose crisis?

Opioid misuse has become a nationwide public health crisis. Luckily, federal, state, and local governments, advocacy organizations, and health professionals are working together to tackle the crisis from every angle. A holistic public health approach is being undertaken to:

  • Improve access to treatment and recovery services
  • Promote the use of overdose-reversing drugs
  • Strengthen our understanding of the crisis through better public health monitoring
  • Develop safe, effective medications strategies for pain management
  • Improve medications to treat people who are addicted to opioids Advance better pain management practices