Narcotics are the oldest, and the strongest, analgesics (pain-relieving) drugs known to mankind. In ancient Sumer and Egypt, medical texts detailing the use of the opium poppy to treat coughs, insomnia and pain date as far back as 4000 B.C.E. Opium was the first opioid to be used and was a common folk remedy for centuries before its addictive properties were recognized; as widespread opium addiction became a problem during the 19th century, laws limiting and regulating its use were passed. The term “narcotic” comes from the Greek word narcosis, which refers to the process of numbing or the numbed state. Today, the term “narcotic” refers to substances that bind to opioid receptors in the brain.
A narcotic is a central nervous system depressant, and any addictive psychoactive compound that has sleep-inducing properties, reduces pain and induces euphoria. The Single Convention of Narcotic Drugs, 1961, limits the possession, use, trade, distribution, import, export, manufacture and production of these drugs to medical and scientific purposes and discourages drug trafficking, and exercises control over more than 116 narcotic drugs. Narcotics are classified by various drug schedules by the DEA, with regard to their potential for abuse, dependence, and addiction.
Narcotics are used as analgesics for pain control, such as after oral surgery, for severe menstrual cramps, or for temporary pain relief in other outpatient surgical procedures. Intravenous narcotics are also used for palliative care in relieving pain of patients diagnosed with terminal cancer.
As antitussives, narcotics are commonly used as cough suppressants. Codeine is a common ingredient in prescription cough medications.
Narcotics are also used as antidiarrheal medications; Paregoric, a liquid tincture containing powdered opium, anise oil and glycerine is sometimes prescribed for severe diarrhea.
Narcotics have a number of physical side effects, including:
- Visual impairment
- Respiratory depression
- Reduced anxiety
- Skin irritation
- Narcotics are classified into three groups according to their origins.
- Natural derivatives of opium include morphine and codeine.
- Partially synthetic drugs derived from morphine include heroin, oxycodone, hydromorphone, and oxymorphone.
- Synthetic compounds that resemble morphine chemically include fentanyl, levorphanol, meperidine, methadone, and propoxyphene.
Narcotics are highly addictive substances with a great potential for abuse and dependence. Tolerance to narcotics is established within two to three days of continued use. Cessation of narcotics results in withdrawal symptoms, which can perpetuate addiction due to unpleasant physical and psychological sensations. Most addicts need the aid of a treatment center or rehab to quit using narcotics.
Withdrawal symptoms of narcotics can begin as few as twelve hours after use; acute physical symptoms can last up to five days, with psychological and emotional withdrawal lasting a matter of months.
Physical symptoms accompanied by narcotic withdrawal include:
- Muscle spasms and cramps
- Joint and bone pain
- Lack of appetite
- Rapid heart rate and breathing.
Because tolerance to narcotics builds up after short use, individuals addicted to narcotics must use higher and higher amounts of the drug to achieve the initial effect, which can lead to serious health problems, coma and death.