Prescription Opioids and Heroin

Opioids are a class of drugs that include prescription drugs such as oxycodone, morphine and fentanyl, as well as heroin. Many people use prescription opioids to relieve pain, however, they can be addictive and can lead to inappropriate use.

In 2014, an estimated 1.9 million Americans suffered from substance abuse disorder related to prescription opioid pain relievers and 435,000 people were estimated to be addicted to heroin. Since 1999, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioid pain relievers and heroin) nearly quadrupled in the United States.  See Illinois Opioid Data Report.

In Illinois, more people died from an opioid drug overdose (due to heroin and prescription opioid pain relievers) in 2014 than from homicide or motor vehicle accidents:
  • Opioid drug overdoses killed 45% more people than homicides
  • Opioid drug overdoses killed 25% more people than motor vehicle crashes
  • Opioid drug overdoses killed more people than people who died due to all gun-related causes (including homicide, suicide, and accidental shootings).

Prescription Opioid Pain Relievers

A number of prescription opioids are prescribed by doctors to relieve pain. These include hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, and codeine. While many people benefit from using these medications to manage pain, they may be used and prescribed improperly. Improper use increases the risk of opioid addiction, and overdose, which may be fatal. Prescription opioid addiction can, in some cases, lead to use of heroin which is cheaper and more easily accessible.

According to the CDC, 44 people die every day in the United States from overdose of prescription opioid pain relievers.


Heroin is an illegal opioid. It is highly addictive and overdose can cause slow and shallow breathing, blue lips and fingernails, clammy skin, convulsions, coma, and death. Heroin is usually injected but can also be smoked and snorted. Reusing needles and syringes can lead to serious medical conditions including HIV, hepatitis C, hepatitis B, and bacterial infections.

Between 2002 and 2014, the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths in the United States more than quadrupled. More than 10,500 people died in 2014 as a result of heroin overdose.


Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever that is much more powerful than any other opioids. It is prescribed for severe pain, such as advanced cancer pain. It has been illegally made and distributed through illegal drug markets, and is often mixed with heroin and other drugs, sometimes without the buyer’s knowledge. Fentanyl overdoses are more lethal than heroin or prescription opioids alone.

Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids, which includes fentanyl, increased by 80% from 2013 to 2014.

Opioid Use Disorder and Infectious Disease

Injection drug use increases the risk of acquiring HIV, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and other infectious diseases. Injection drug use (IDU) can be a direct route of disease transmission if people share needles, syringes, or other injection materials that are contaminated with HIV, Hepatitis C and or Hepatitis C. In people living with HIV, substance use affect the ability to stay on HIV therapy and can worsen the impact of the infection on overall health.

Illinois by the Numbers

What Can Be Done?

  1. Reduce opioids misuse and overprescribing
    1. Promote safe opioid prescribing guidelines - IDPH and Attorney General Training Video for New Opioid Prescribers
    2. Promote public health educational campaigns and safe opioid drug disposal
    3. Support graduate medical and continuing clinical education around substance use disorders, treatment and prevention
    4. Promote use of the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program
      1. Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs) are state-run electronic databases used to track the prescribing and dispensing of controlled prescription drugs to patients. They are designed to monitor this information for suspected abuse or diversion (i.e., channeling drugs into illegal use), and can give a prescriber or pharmacist critical information regarding a patient’s controlled substance prescription history. This information can help prescribers and pharmacists identify patients at high-risk who would benefit from early interventions.
  2. Prevent life-threatening overdoses
    1. Naloxone is an opioid reversal drug that can be given to someone who has overdosed and can save their life. There are a number of programs throughout Illinois that provide training and naloxone to first responders.
  3. Reduce complications related to shared syringe and needle use
    1. Syringe Exchange Programs
  4. Diagnose and Treat addiction and substance use disorders (SUDs)
    1. Promote Screening and Treatment of SUDs
    2. Remove stigma around substance use and substance use disorders