What are Narcotics, Exactly?

Narcotic Rehab

What are Considered Narcotics?

Thanks to legions of television shows and movies, the term “ narcotics ” is often broadly — and incorrectly — used to describe all types of illegal drugs, from marijuana to cocaine, methamphetamine to club drugs. However, accurate  narcotics information requires a much narrower definition, and includes only:

  • Opium
  • Semi-synthetic opioids
  • Synthetic opioids


These substances are also known as opiates, a more current and specific term. The word “narcotic” comes from the Greek word for “stupor” or “sleep.” This refers to narcotics’ ability to relieve pain, dull the senses, and induce sleep. Sometimes called “downers,” narcotics tend to cause a feeling of relaxation and a general sense of well-being.

In the body, narcotics work as analgesics — or pain killers — that selectively depress the central nervous system to block pain. When used continuously or incorrectly, narcotics cause tolerance, leading to physical and mental addiction.

In terms of legality, narcotic agents run the gamut, from illicit substances such as heroin to controlled prescription drugs like oxycodone and codeine.


Opium comes from the poppy plant (Papaver somniferum). The poppies’ sap contains naturally-occurring narcotic alkaloids. Humans have cultivated this flower for its pain-relieving and sleep-inducing properties for thousands of years.

Historically, opium was the most potent pain-relief substance available for centuries. Recreational use began in Asia and the Middle East in the 1300s and quickly spread throughout the British colonies and beyond over the next few centuries. International regulation took hold in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As opium use waned, the production of opium derivatives and semi-synthetics increased.


In 1804, a German pharmacist created the first batch of morphine. Today, morphine is still one of the most potent pain relievers available and is used to treat moderate-to-severe chronic and acute pain.

A relatively pure extract of opium, morphine is an analgesic and causes mental clouding, drowsiness, and mood changes. Other side effects which are common across most opioids include:

  • Respiratory depression
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating
  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Red eyes
  • Nervousness and agitation
  • Chills
  • Decreased sexual desire and ability
  • Weight loss
  • Headache


Like other narcotics, morphine has the potential to be highly addictive.


Codeine, another opium derivative, is less potent than morphine. Most often prescribed as an analgesic, codeine’s many pharmaceutical uses include:

  • Cough suppressant
  • Anti-diarrheal
  • Anti-itch
  • Anti-anxiety
  • Sedative


While less addictive than morphine, codeine may also be habit-forming.


Heroin was first synthesized from morphine in 1874. Though it was intended for use as an analgesic, today about 90% of all illicit opioid use involves heroin.

Heroin is highly addictive and once heroin is sniffed, snorted, injected, or smoked it causes a range of effects including:

  • Initial rush of euphoria
  • Dry mouth
  • Drowsiness
  • Clouded mental state
  • Respiratory depression



A semi-synthesized opioid, oxycodone was developed as a pain-relief alternative to morphine, codeine, and heroin. Today, several pharmaceutical medications contain oxycodone. Common brand names include:

  • OxyContin
  • Percodan
  • Percocet
  • OxyNorm
  • Roxicet
  • Roxicodone
  • Tylox
  • Combunox


Oxycodone comes in tablet, capsule, and liquid forms and is often sold combined with aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen.

Since the early 2000s, oxycodone has also been used as a recreational drug. It’s currently classified as a Schedule II controlled substance in the U.S.


Another semi-synthetic opioid, hydrocodone is used to treat moderate-to-severe pain and to suppress coughing. It’s sold only in combination with other ingredients and comes in tablet, liquid, syrup, or capsule form. Common brand names include:

  • Vicodin
  • Lortab
  • Liquicet
  • Zydone
  • Anexsia
  • Atuss


Hydrocodone is classified as a Schedule II and Schedule III controlled substance.


Hydromorphone is a semi-synthetic narcotic that comes from morphine. It’s prescribed for severe-to-moderate pain and cough suppression and is thought to be stronger, yet less addictive, than morphine.

Common brands include Dilaudid and Exalgo.

Synthetic Opioids

Synthetic opioids include:

  • Meperidine
  • Fentanyl
  • Methadone


Meperidine or pethidine is sold as Demerol. It comes in tablet or syrup form and is prescribed for chronic pain, labor pain, and as a pre-operative drug.

Fentanyl is used to treat breakthrough pain experienced by cancer patients. It’s sold as Abstral, Actiq, Fentora, and Onsolis and comes in lozenge, film,  dissolvable tablet form, and patches.  This opioid is several times more potent than morphine and has been used as an illicit recreational drug in the U.S. since the 1970s.

Methadone is prescribed to treat pain and to prevent symptoms of opiate addiction withdrawal. This synthetic opioid is both more toxic and more active than morphine. Brand names include Dolophine and Methadose. It’s sold in tablet or liquid form.

Addiction Help

Along with oxycodone, hydrocodone is one of the most commonly used prescription narcotics in the U.S. From 1991 to 2007, prescriptions for oxycodone and hydrocodone increased from 40 million to more than 180 million. Recreational and misuse of these prescription drugs has grown, as well; emergency room visits related to opioid use jumped 153% from 1995 to 2004.

If you or someone you love need help with narcotic use, including prescription opioid use, Best Drug Rehabilitation can help.

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