Why Are Opioids So Addictive?

On average, someone in America dies from a drug overdose every eight minutes. That is almost 180 lives lost each day. Most of these drug related deaths are caused by opioids such as heroin, manufactured synthetic fentanyl, hydrocodone or oxycodone. In 2017, it was reported that about 47,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose. From 2017 to 2018, that figure increased by 4% and in 2019, the CDC reported a record breaking 71,000 opioid related deaths.

How Did We Get Here?

This crisis can be rooted back to the late 1990s when pharmaceutical companies falsely claimed that opioids were not addictive. Medical professional began haphazardly prescribing opioid pain killers to patients under this false pretense and before the truth was revealed, medications were already being misused at alarming rates.

Understanding the Addiction

More often than not, an addiction to opioids begins with a prescription from a doctor for chronic pain or post-surgery. Opioids act by dulling pain receptors while also triggering an increase in dopamine, which contributes to a high feeling. Understanding an addiction to opioids can be broken down in two parts. 1) Tolerance and 2) dependence.


The more a person uses opioids, they develop a tolerance which increases with use. With an increase in tolerance, comes an increase in the amount of opioid needed to achieve the same desired feeling. It is because of this increased tolerance that people often move from prescription painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone to stronger short-acting opiates like heroin or fentanyl.


The human body is configured to release a natural opioid when experiencing pain. However, this system abused with chronic opioid use and fails. The body stops producing its own natural opioid and, in turn, becomes dependent on the drugs.

Now, as the country is experiencing a full-blown opioid epidemic, the casualties are catastrophic. While the crisis certainly began with the reckless prescription of painkillers, it certainly has now spiraled into a heroin and fentanyl crisis.