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Are Prescription Painkillers a Form of Heroin?

Prescription opioid painkillers and heroin are both derived from the poppy plant and they are chemically very similar. They have similar effects on the brain, although when taken as directed, the effect of prescription painkillers is much less intense. Prescription painkillers, when used properly and for a limited time are a relatively safe way to treat moderate to severe pain.

Unfortunately, prescription painkillers are not always used properly and for a limited time. Even patients who are prescribed painkillers following a medical procedure or injury may build up a tolerance and become addicted. If they begin taking larger doses or crushing the pills to snort or inject them, then prescription painkillers can be almost indistinguishable from heroin. Both cause euphoria, lethargy, and insensitivity to pain. Both are extremely addictive.

All else being equal, prescription painkillers, even when abused, are slightly preferable to heroin because at least the dose and ingredients are certain. With heroin, you don’t know for sure what you’re getting. This is only a minor consideration, considering the long term negative effects are similar for both. These effects can include risk of fatal overdose, insomnia, depression, and infections from needle use.

Even more alarming, prescription painkiller addiction seems to be a slippery slope to heroin addiction. Some studies have shown that about 80 percent of heroin users had previously used prescription opioid painkillers and people who use painkillers are 40 times more likely to use heroin. Efforts in recent years to limit the availability of prescription painkillers appears to have driven an increase in heroin use, as heroin is easier to get. This is all to say that the differences between opioid painkiller abuse and heroin abuse may be irrelevant, as one is likely to lead to the other.

The withdrawal symptoms of opioid painkillers are similar to heroin too. These symptoms include intense cravings, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, bone and muscle pain, stomach cramps, fever and chills, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, yawning, runny nose, depression, and anxiety. The timing of these symptoms may be slightly different because heroin is a short-acting drug and some prescription painkillers are formulated to be longer-acting. Withdrawal symptoms from heroin may begin in six to 12 hours, whereas the longer-acting painkillers may take a few days.

Treatment for opioid painkiller addiction is similar to heroin as well. Because both drugs work on the brain’s opioid receptors, the same medications are effective for treatment. The most common medications are methadone and buprenorphine–opioid agonists that limit cravings while allowing addicts to function more or less normally–and Vivitrol, which is an opioid antagonist that prevents opioids from affecting the brain at all.

If you or someone you love is addicted to opioid painkillers, Gardens Wellness Center can help. We offer medically assisted detox to lessen the pain of withdrawal and we have a variety of individualized treatment options. Don’t wait. Call us today at 844-828-1050 or email us at to learn more.