Opioids 101

Opioids are a class of drugs that include naturally-occurring opiates (like heroin) as well as synthetically produced painkillers. When we talk about opioids here, we’re talking about heroin and certain prescription painkillers and cough medicines:

  • Heroin
  • OxyContin
  • Percocet
  • Vicodin
  • Codeine*
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone
  • Hydromorphone
  • Methadone
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone
  • Oxymorphone
  • Paregoric
  • Sufentanil
  • Tramadol

Each of these drugs binds to the opioid receptors in the brain, keeping messages of pain from being delivered to the body. This removes the sensation of pain for the user and replaces it with a sensation of comfort and bliss. 

When they’re taken correctly, prescription painkillers can be used safely to manage pain. But some are very addictive, even when used as prescribed. Opioid prescription painkillers are also very strong, so incorrect or accidental dosages can be enough to cause serious health problems or death from overdose.

*You’ve heard of lean or syrup? They’re common terms for a drink made from opioid cough medicine (typically featuring codeine), soda and fruit-flavored candy. This mixture is another widespread and dangerous vehicle for opioids; users often don’t know how much of the drug they’ve ingested before it’s too late. 

Why are they so Dangerous?

Prescription opioid pills (painkillers) are fueling an epidemic because they’re overprescribed, incredibly powerful, and easy to get addicted to.  Some individuals who have become addicted to opioid pills but can no longer can get their prescription filled unfortunately begin using heroin.

Louisiana is one of eight states where there are more prescriptions written than people. Leftover prescription pills are also a big part of the problem. When the initial pain that warranted a prescription is gone, the extra pills are still tempting to either the person they were prescribed to, to family members, friends, or others with access to the pills. It’s a very slippery slope that’s sucking in new people of all walks of life every single day.

You’re at risk of becoming addicted  if you’ve been prescribed opioid painkillers by your doctor—especially if you’ve been given a large prescription.* This includes people who receive high daily doses of opioids or obtain opioids from multiple prescribers or pharmacies. It also includes people with chronic pain, past or current substance use disorders, untreated mental health disorders, and/or prior nonmedical use of opioids.

Obviously, if you’re taking opioid pills recreationally to get high, you’re at risk of addiction. You’re also at risk of accidentally taking counterfeit pills, which are dangerously unpredictable and can cause overdose or death with a single dose.

In particular, anyone who is living in recovery or who has a substance use disorder, untreated psychiatric disorders and/or social or family environments that encourage misuse is at risk.

*This is specifically why companies such as CVS have policies against filling an opioid prescription for more than seven days at a time. Learn more about Louisiana’s state policy here.


Addiction causes people to habitually seek out reward or relief through drug use, so much so that personal responsibilities, family and friends and the instinct of self-preservation take a back seat.

Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment and active work on recovery, addiction worsens and inevitably leads to disability or death.

The signs and symptoms of addiction can be physical, behavioral or psychological. One clear sign of addiction is not being able to stop using the substance—taking it for the feeling it gives you, not to suppress pain—and not being able to stop yourself from using more than the prescribed amount.

Other signs and symptoms of opioid addiction include:

  • Noticeable elation or euphoria
  • Marked sedation or drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Constricted pupils
  • Slowed breathing
  • Intermittent nodding off, or loss of consciousness
  • Constipation
  • Doctor shopping (getting multiple opioid prescriptions from different doctors)
  • Shifting or dramatically changing moods
  • Extra pill bottles turning up in the trash
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Sudden financial problem



The amount of opioids prescribed and sold in the US has quadrupled since 1999, but the overall amount of pain reported hasn’t changed. 

There just isn’t enough evidence that prescription opioids control chronic pain effectively over the long term, and there is evidence that other treatments can be effective with less potential for harm. Patients with chronic pain can have safe and effective pain management without the addiction risk of opioids.

Safer Pain Management


Non–Opioids For Chronic Pain


Managing Chronic Pain



If you have an opioid prescription—or are about to get one—ask your doctor:

  • Are there non-opioid treatments (like other medications, exercise or physical therapy, for example) that I should try instead?
  • Are any of the medicines I’m taking addictive?
  • How do I manage short-term vs. long-term opioid prescription use?
  • How often should I follow-up with your office



As we noted above, unused prescription pills present a danger to the person to whom they were originally prescribed, as well as their family and friends. When you’re ready to dispose of unused opioid prescription pills, do it safely. (Which means, please don’t toss them in your bathroom trashcan or flush them down the toilet.)

The New Orleans Health Department and NOPD offer a prescription drop-off box where people can safely, discreetly and easily drop off unused prescription drugs, with no questions asked.

The Opioid Epidemic in New Orleans

Get Help

Addiction affects people and their lives in different ways. So, there has to be more than one approach to helping them through it. One method of treatment is not necessarily better than another—these are options based on individual needs and are meant to help the greatest number of people to recover.

Treatment Options

Detoxification (Detox): 

This is when someone with an addiction goes to a short-term, overnight care center so that they can be monitored while opioids are leaving their system. Detox centers may also offer counseling and access to long-term treatment resources. 

Outpatient Treatment: 

This option doesn’t involve overnight stays, but allows an individual to enter a recovery program that includes therapy, goal-setting and daily medical support while maintaining their daily life activities like work. 

Residential Treatment: 

This treatment approach utilizes live-in housing programs for longer periods of time, usually from 30 – 90 days. These programs offer comprehensive, ongoing substance use therapy.


Medication–Assisted Treatment: 

This can be a component of other treatment programs, but it simply means using doctor-recommended medicine (like buprenorphine, naltrexone, or methadone) as a treatment tool along with therapy to help treat substance use disorder. 

Peer–To–Peer Support Programs: 

These are specific locations where support is offered by other people going through addition recovery, including support from a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist.



Ultimately, we want to help people overcome their addictions. But we need to help them survive in the meantime. People who use injectable drugs can reduce their risk of getting and transmitting HIV, viral hepatitis and other blood-borne infections by using a clean, sterile needle and syringe for every injection. 

Syringe services programs (SSPs)—also known as syringe exchange programs (SEPs), needle exchange programs (NEPs) and needle-syringe programs (NSPs)—are community-based programs that provide access to sterile needles and syringes free of cost, and offer safe disposal of used needles and syringes with no question asked.

Syringe Service Program Locations

Crescent Care

  • Corner of Orleans Avenue and Jefferson Davis Parkway 
  • The first Friday or every month
  • Website

Women with a Vision

  • 504-301-0428, call for more info
  • Website


  • Provides syringe access
  • Text 504-535-4766 to make an appointment
  • Website

Crescent Care (New Orleans Syringe Access Program)

  • 507 Frenchman St
  • 504-945-4000
  • Open every Friday from 2:30-4:40pm


Addiction can be very difficult to understand. The best thing you can do to start helping your friend or family member is to learn more about what they’re going through. 


If you’re not sure how to proceed, or don’t know how to get help your loved one get treatment, the Metropolitan Human Services District can help.
Phone: 504-568-3130
More Info: www.mhsdla.org


It’s very difficult and emotional to watch someone you love struggle with drug addiction. Recognize that you’ll be more helpful to them if you’re also taking care of yourself. Find someone you can talk to about what you’re going through—like a trusted friend or a counselor—or visit a family support meeting to talk with others going through similar struggles.

Save a life

If you’re in an emergency situation or witnessing a possible overdose,  call 911 immediately. Here you’ll find ways to prepare in advance, so you can try to save a life in the event of an overdose.

Identifying an overdose

An opioid overdose requires immediate emergency attention. Recognizing the signs of opioid overdose is essential to saving lives.

  • Their face is extremely pale and/or feels clammy to the touch
  • Their body goes limp
  • Their fingernails or lips have a purple or blue color
  • They start vomiting or making gurgling noises
  • They cannot be awakened or are unable to speak
  • Their breathing or heartbeat slows or stops


Naloxone is a medicine that can reverse an opioid overdose and can be administered by anyone. You may have heard of the brand name medicine NARCAN®—this is naloxone in a nasal spray form.

People administering naloxone are legally protected by LA Law—as a Good Samaritan, you cannot be impacted legally for administering naloxone to someone experiencing an overdose, even if you are also currently under the influence of illegal drugs. There is also a Standing Order Law in New Orleans due to the severity of the opioid addiction crisis.

Be sure to call your pharmacy for additional information on availability and cost options.

The Standing Order Law


You can get naloxone at any pharmacy without a prescription from a doctor, and your pharmacists can show you how to administer it. You can use these online instructions if you need a reminder. 

How To Use Naloxone

Find Naloxone