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What is a Narcotic?

By Ken Black
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A narcotic is a drug that is meant to sedate, or induce sleep. In less potent forms, this family of drugs is often used as a pain reliever because of its ability to relax muscles and provide relief as a sedative. Many illegal drugs that people often refer to as narcotics are actually not. Instead, some of these drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamines, are actually stimulants, and therefore are the opposite of narcotics. Still, despite the improper use of the word, the term narcotic is often applied to all illegal drugs, especially in the law enforcement field.

Not all narcotic drugs are illegal, though many are heavily regulated and only available by prescription because of their addictive properties and potential for abuse. The most common forms of narcotics are opiates, such as codeine and morphine. Other forms of narcotic drugs include barbiturates. The forms of these drugs that are most addictive are available in many countries, but only by prescription.

Narcotic medications work by blocking pain receptors from communicating with the brain. This unique ability gives them the opportunity to be very effective in treating symptoms that cause pain. These drugs, however, do not treat any of the causes associated with the pain, so therefore the measure is typically only used until a more permanent solution is found, or until the problem clears up with time.

Generally, a physician will prescribe a narcotic that is deemed to be least addictive. The tradeoff is typically that the drug is also less effective as a pain reliever. If the less potent forms of narcotics do not work, then the physician may prescribe a more powerful drug. In such cases, the doctor typically weighs the medical benefit versus the risk of abuse, taking the patient’s history and family situation into account.

Narcotic medications are administered in a variety of ways, but the most common ways are orally, through the use of a pill, or intravenously through a tube inserted into a vein. The method chosen is often dependent upon the medication and the needs of the patient. Intravenous methods may offer relief quickly, if that is of prime concern, but typically are only done in a professional medical setting, such as a hospital. Oral medications are often administered in a formula that releases more medication into the blood over time.

The time-released mechanism is often the subject of abuse with narcotic drugs. The safeguards and features that allow for release of the medication over time are easy to bypass, and can provide a powerful, potent high to the user. While using the drugs in such a way is illegal, it is commonplace among those who have discovered the benefits of doing so.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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