Scientists Say: Opioid | Science News for Students

Scientists Say: Opioid

This word describes a drug that can kill pain and produce pleasure
Jan 7, 2019 — 6:30 am EST
purple opium poppy

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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Power Words

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cell     The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells. Most organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

endorphins     Any of a group of chemicals secreted within the brain and nervous system. As neurotransmitters, they relay messages within the nervous system. They also activate the feel-good receptors in the body and can raise an individual’s threshold for pain.

heroin     A highly addictive and illegal drug derived from morphine, a potent pain killer. People often take heroin as a narcotic — something that dulls the senses, relieves pain and makes them sleepy or unmotivated to do anything other than lay in a slump.

molecule     An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).

nausea     The feeling of being sick to one's stomach, as though one could vomit.

opioid     Drugs or natural substances that act on receptors (cell molecules) that can block pain signals from traveling along nerves. It can also cause euphoria, intense, pleasurable feelings of well-being. Opioids take their name from opium, a strong painkiller, which was first made from poppies, a types of flower.

receptor     (in biology) A molecule in cells that serves as a docking station for another molecule. That second molecule can turn on some special activity by the cell.

withdrawal     (in medicine) An almost disease-like syndrome that can develop after animals (including people) attempt to stop using a drug (including alcohol) to which they have become addicted. Shaking, sweating, trouble sleeping, anxiety, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, muscle aches and flu-like symptoms can occur and last for days.