How similar is heroin to prescription opioids? More than you’d be comfortable knowing. According to the National Institutes of Health, many current heroin addicts started off on prescription pain medications. When you look at the similarities between the two drugs, it’s not hard to see why. The drugs share many effects and risks — as well as molecular structures.
Both heroin and prescription opioids belong to the opioid family, although heroin is a natural form of the drug derived from the poppy plant, and prescription opioids are synthetic versions of the drug created in a laboratory. However, on a molecular level, both these drugs are nearly identical. Both work by depressing the nervous system, which can induce feelings of relaxation and euphoria. However, it’s these exact traits that make both drugs highly addictive.
In addition to having similar effects on the body, heroin and prescription opioids also have similar risks to users’ health, such as slowed heart rate, slowed breathing, and overdose risk. The National Institutes of Health report that they also have similar withdrawal symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, and anxiety.
One of the biggest differences between heroin and prescription opioids are the number of people who use them. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health report a little over 820,000 Americans admitted to using heroin last year; in the case of prescription painkillers, this number is closer to 12.5 million. For this exact reason, opioid overdoses kill twice as many people as heroin overdoses. In fact, some forms of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and carfentanil are even more potent than heroin, making them far more dangerous than this classic street drug.