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The Most Commonly Prescribed Opiates

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Derived naturally or synthetically from the opium plant, opiates are a class of drugs that were all originally produced for the purpose of providing pain relief. While not all opiates are used for their intended purpose today, there are many narcotic painkillers commonly used to help patients with severe acute pain or chronic pain that can’t be effectively managed with other treatments. Here are some of the most commonly prescribed opiates in the United States.


The most prescribed opiate painkiller in the United States, hydrocodone is used to treat to moderate-to-severe pain. As potent as morphine for pain, Vicodin is the most commonly used hydrocodone combination drug. Because Vicodin contains acetaminophen, an overdose may cause liver damage. Like other opiates, it works in the brain to change sensations associated with pain. These changes can also result in a altered sense of well-being and a feeling of euphoria.

Codeine and Codeine-Combination Drugs

Most codeine used for pharmaceutical purposes is created by chemically altering morphine. In addition to being used as a cough suppressant, it’s also used to manage or relieve moderate pain. Similar to hydrocodone, codeine is often combined with other drugs such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and paracetamol (acetaminophen).

Oxycodone/Oxycodone with Acetaminophen

Also prescribed for moderate-to-severe pain, oxycodone (OxyContin) is a semi-synthetic opiate. The extended-release form of oxycodone is often prescribed for patients needing round-the-clock pain management, as may be the case with cancer-related pain. It’s also one of the most commonly abused drugs. Oxycodone with acetaminophen is a generic form of Percocet, which is the strongest combination as-needed pain medication available.


Often used to manage cancer pain and chronic pain from other sources, methadone is a synthetic opiate. It’s a slow-acting opiate that can provide sustained relief for long periods of time, typically up to 24 hours with a daily dose. It has effects similar to heroin and morphine and can also be addictive.


Eighty-times more potent than morphine, fentanyl is common used as a skin patch (transdermal patch). This is done to allow for a slow delivery of the medication to manage chronic pain symptoms. It may also be used to prevent or minimize pain after surgery. Stronger than heroin, fentanyl is also highly addictive.

When used responsibly, opiates can provide welcome relief from pain. Due to the high potential for addiction, however, many physicians are being cautious when prescribing drugs of this nature. Doctors are also prohibited from writing prescriptions for painkillers longer than 90 days. When three months are up, patients must come in for an office visit. The goal is to spot possible signs of addiction early since early treatment increases the odds of enjoying a successful recovery.