The term “narcotics” is often loosely used. You hear it, and you think of all drugs that are considered either socially unacceptable or illegal, even products like legal bud. For example, many of our anti-drug laws use the word as a synonym for drugs. The term “narc” for narcotics agent is used to describe a law-enforcement official engaged in anti-drug efforts.
But when doctors use the term, narcotics has a much more limited meaning, referring to a distinct class of drugs. These differ markedly from the psychedelics such as LSD, or the sedative-hypnotics hhat include alcohol and barbiturates. And while many narcotics are indeed illegal and dangerous (such as heroin), others are prescription drugs that have a wide variety of medical uses, including pain relief and diarrhea control.
Opioids are a class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant. Some prescription opioids are made from the plant directly, and others are made by scientists in labs using the same chemical structure. Opioids are often used as medicines because they contain chemicals that relax the body and can relieve pain. Prescription opioids are used mostly to treat moderate to severe pain, though some opioids can be used to treat coughing and diarrhea.
Narcotics work by binding to receptors in the brain, which blocks the feeling of pain. When used carefully and under a doctor’s direct care, they can be effective at reducing pain. Almost always, you should not use a narcotic medicine for more than 3 to 4 months.
Names of Narcotics
- Fentanyl (Duragesic) — available as a patch
- Hydrocodone ( Vicodin)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
- Meperidine (Demerol)
- Morphine (MS Contin)
- Oxycodone (Oxycontin, Percocet, Percodan)
- Tramadol (Ultram)
These drugs can be abused and habit-forming. Always take narcotics as prescribed. Your provider may suggest that you take your medicine only when you feel pain.
Or, your provider may suggest taking a narcotic on a regular schedule. Allowing the medicine to wear off before taking more of it can make the pain difficult to control.
Contact your provider right away if you feel you are addicted to the drug. A sign of addiction is a strong craving for the drug that you can’t control.
Taking narcotics to control the pain of cancer or other medical problems does not itself lead to dependence.
Store narcotics safely and securely in your home.
You may need a pain specialist to help you manage long-term pain.
Side Effects of Narcotics
Drowsiness and impaired judgment often occur with these medicines. When taking a narcotic, do not drink alcohol, drive, or operate heavy machinery.
You can relieve itching by reducing the dose or talking to your provider about switching medicines.
To help with constipation, drink more fluids, get more exercise, eat foods with extra fiber, and use stool softeners.
If nausea or vomiting occur, try taking the narcotic with food.
Withdrawal symptoms are common when you stop taking a narcotic. Symptoms include strong desire for the medicine (craving), yawning, insomnia, restlessness, mood swings, or diarrhea. To prevent withdrawal symptoms, your provider may recommend you gradually lower the dosage over time.
Narcotics Overdose Risks
Opioid overdose is a major risk if you take a narcotic drug for a long time. Before you are prescribed a narcotic, your provider may first do the following:
- Screen you to see if you are at risk for or already have an opioid use problem.
- Teach you and your family how to respond if you have an overdose. You may be prescribed and instructed how to use a drug called naloxone in case you have an overdose of your narcotic drug.
How Can an Narcotics Overdose Be Treated?
If you suspect someone has overdosed, the most important step to take is to call 911 so he or she can receive immediate medical attention. Once medical personnel arrive, they will administer naloxone. Naloxone is a medicine that can treat an opioid overdose when given right away. It works by rapidly binding to opioid receptors and blocking the effects of opioid drugs. Naloxone is available as an injectable (needle) solution, a hand-held auto-injector (EVZIO®), and a nasal spray (NARCAN® Nasal Spray).
Some states have passed laws that allow pharmacists to dispense naloxone without a personal prescription. This allows friends, family, and others in the community to use the auto-injector and nasal spray versions of naloxone to save someone who is overdosing.
Painkillers; Drugs for pain; Analgesics; Opioids
Narcotics May Lead to Addiction
Repeated misuse of prescription opioids can lead to a substance use disorder (SUD), a medical illness which ranges from mild to severe and from temporary to chronic. Addiction is the most severe form of an SUD. An SUD develops when continued misuse of the drug changes the brain and causes health problems and failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home.
People addicted to an opioid medication who stop using the drug can have severe withdrawal symptoms that begin as early as a few hours after the drug was last taken. These symptoms include:
- muscle and bone pain
- sleep problems
- diarrhea and vomiting
- cold flashes with goose bumps
- uncontrollable leg movements
- severe cravings
These symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable and are the reason many people find it so difficult to stop using opioids. There are medicines being developed to help with the withdrawal process, including lofexidine, a non-opioid medicine designed to reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms that was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2018. The FDA has also approved sale of a device, NSS-2 Bridge, that can help ease withdrawal symptoms. The NSS-2 Bridge is a small electrical nerve stimulator placed behind the person’s ear, that can be used for up to five days during the acute withdrawal phase.
How to Treat Narcotics Addiction ?
A range of treatments including medicines and behavioral therapies are effective in helping people with opioid addiction.
Two medicines, buprenorphine and methadone, work by binding to the same opioid receptors in the brain as the opioid medicines, reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Another medicine, naltrexone, blocks opioid receptors and prevents opioid drugs from having an effect.
Behavioral therapies for addiction to prescription opioids help people modify their attitudes and behaviors related to drug use, increase healthy life skills, and persist with other forms of treatment, such as medication. Some examples include, cognitive behavioral therapy which helps modify the patient’s drug use expectations and behaviors, and also effectively manage triggers and stress. Multidimensional family therapy, developed for adolescents with drug use problems, addresses a range of personal and family influences on one’s drug use patterns and is designed to improve overall functioning. These behavioral treatment approaches have proven effective, especially when used along with medicines.