Narcotics are addictive drugs that reduce the user's perception of
and induce euphoria (a feeling of exaggerated and unrealistic
well-being). The English word narcotic is derived from the Greek
, which means "numbing" or "deadening."
Although the term can refer to any drug that deadens sensation or produces
stupor, it is commonly applied to the opioids—that is, to all
natural or synthetic drugs that act like morphine.
Narcotics are the oldest as well as the strongest
, or pain-relieving drugs, known to humans. Ancient Sumerian and Egyptian
medical texts dated as early as 4000 B.C. mention the opium poppy (
) as the source of a milky fluid (opium latex) that could be given to
relieve coughs and insomnia as well as ease pain. Traditional Chinese
medicine recommended the opium poppy, known to Chinese physicians as
ying su ke
, for the treatment of
, and dysentery as well as chronic pain and insomnia. Opium latex contains
between 10 and 20 percent morphine, which in its purified form is a white
crystalline powder with a bitter taste.
Narcotics are central nervous system depressants that produce a stuporous
state in the person who takes them. These drugs often induce a state of
euphoria or feeling of extreme well-being, and they are powerfully
addictive. The body quickly builds a tolerance to narcotics in as little
as two to three days, so that greater doses are required to achieve the
same effect. Because of the addictive qualities of these drugs, most
countries in the
twenty-first century have strict laws regarding the production and
distribution of narcotics. These laws became necessary when opium
in the nineteenth century became a widespread social problem in the
developed countries. Opium, which was the first of the opioids to be
widely used, had been a common folk remedy for centuries that often led to
addiction for the user; in fact, many popular Victorian patent medicines
for "female complaints" actually contained opium. The
invention of the hypodermic needle in the mid-nineteenth century, however,
increased the number of addicts because it allowed opioids to be delivered
directly into the bloodstream, thereby dramatically increasing their
As of the early 2000s, narcotics are commonly classified into three groups
according to their origin:
Narcotics are available in many different forms, ranging from oral,
intramuscular, and intravenous preparations to patches that can be applied
to the skin (fentanyl). Illegal street heroin can be taken by inhalation
as well as by injection.
The central nervous system in humans and other mammals contains five
different types of opioid receptor proteins, located primarily in the
brain, spinal cord, and digestive tract. When a person takes an opioid
medication, the drug attaches to these opioid receptors in the brain and
spinal cord and decreases the person's perception of pain.
Narcotics do not, however, reduce or eliminate the cause of the pain.
Some of the opioid receptors (known as mu and sigma receptors) influence a
person's perception of pleasure. When a narcotic medication
stimulates these receptor proteins, the person typically experiences
intense sensations of euphoria or well-being. The speed with which these
drugs take effect depends on the method of administration; IV narcotics
reach their peak effectiveness within ten minutes, while oral narcotics
take about an hour and a half, and skin patches take between two and four
Overdoses of narcotics can cause drowsiness, unconsciousness, and even
death because these drugs suppress respiration.
Narcotics have several legitimate uses:
In the United States, opioids are as of 2004 classified as Schedule II
drugs under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Drugs in this category
are described by the government as having a high potential for abuse and a
liability for dependence and yet an approved medical use in
. The corresponding Canadian legislation, the Controlled Drugs and
Substances Act of 1997, classifies medications containing any narcotic
under the heading (N) but specifies varying levels of regulation ranging
from strict controls for highly addictive single-drug products to lesser
controls on drugs combining
a narcotic with non-narcotic substances. As both countries' legal
controls indicate, narcotics should be used cautiously, for as short a
period of time as possible, and only under a doctor's supervision.
In particular, they should never be used together with certain other
categories of prescription drugs or herbal preparations.
In addition to the risk of dependency or addiction, narcotics have a
number of physical side effects, including the following:
Narcotics can be dangerous because of their potential for deadly
interactions with other medications as well as their potential for
dependence and addiction. Narcotics should never be combined with other
types of drugs that depress the central nervous system. These categories
of drugs include the following:
Narcotics can also interact with certain herbal preparations to cause
central nervous system depression. Anyone taking narcotics for pain relief
should avoid using herbal preparations containing kava kava (
), valerian (
), chamomile (
), or lemon balm (
), as these herbs intensify the tendency of opioids to cause drowsiness
and slow down breathing. Ginseng (
) should also be avoided because it interferes with the pain-relieving
qualities of opioid medications.
Scientists have attempted to develop ways to use the pain-killing
properties of narcotics while counteracting their addictive qualities.
Substances known as narcotic or opioid antagonists are drugs that block
the actions of narcotics and are used to reverse the side effects of
narcotic abuse or an overdose. A class of drugs, a mixture of opioids and
opioid antagonists, has been developed so that patients can be relieved of
pain without the addictive or other unpleasant side effects associated
—A class of pain-relieving medicines, including aspirin and
—A drug used to suppress coughing.
—A feeling or state of well-being or elation.
—The principal alkaloid derived from the opium poppy for use as a
pain reliever and sedative. In its purified form, it is a white,
bitter-tasting crystalline powder.
—A drug derived from opium or compounds similar to opium. Such
drugs are potent pain relievers and can affect mood and behavior.
Long-term use of narcotics can lead to dependence and tolerance. Also
known as a narcotic analgesic.
—The milky juice or sap of the opium poppy, used to produce
—Referring to a drug or a form of care that relieves pain without
providing a cure. Persons in severe pain from terminal cancer are often
prescribed narcotics as palliative care.
—A trance-like state that causes a person to appear numb to their
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