Scientists Say: Opioid

This word describes a drug that can kill pain and produce pleasure


It’s pretty, but don’t be fooled. This is the opium poppy, the flower that produces the painkiller opium — the namesake for opioid drugs.

Louise Joly/Wikipedia Commons (CC BY-SA 1.0)

Opioid (noun, “OH-pee-oyd”)

An opioid is any member of the opioid class of drugs. Opioids are named for opium, a painkiller made from poppy flowers. This was the first opioid that people used — and abused. Modern drugs in this class include morphine, heroin, fentanyl, oxycontin and many others. These drugs can relieve pain and make people feel good. Sometimes, too good.

When someone takes an opioid, the chemical will bind to molecules called opioid receptors located on the outside of brain cells. Those receptors are normally used by the brain’s own opioids, called endorphins, which can dull pain and produce pleasure. But manmade opioid drugs are much more powerful. And they not only stop people from feeling pain but also can produce intense feelings of pleasure.

Those good feelings can prompt some people to take opioids again and again. But over time, the brain becomes tolerant to the effects, and it takes more and more drug to provide pain relief and pleasure. After a dose of the drug wears off, a person might suffer from withdrawal — nasty feelings of sickness. The nausea and vomiting can drive someone to take more opioids. All this combines to make opioid drugs addictive. 

In a sentence

When teens dance in teams, their brains release endorphins — natural opioids — which proves that everything’s better when you do it together. 

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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