Opioid FAQs

Page updated on Aug 31, 2021 at 5:07 PM

What are opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs used to reduce pain. They include prescriptions like oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and fentanyl as well as illegal opioids like heroin. Learn more about opioids at www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/opoids.

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use as an analgesic (pain relief) and anesthetic. It is approximately 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin as an analgesic. Fentanyl can be injected, snorted/sniffed, smoked, taken orally by pill or tablet, and spiked onto blotter paper. Illicitly produced fentanyl is sold alone or in combination with heroin and other substances and has been identified in counterfeit pills, mimicking pharmaceutical drugs such as oxycodone. Learn more about fentanyl. (Source: Drug Fact Sheet: Fentanyl by the Drug Enforcement Agency)

How do opioids affect the body?

These drugs attach to nerve cells in various parts of the body, including the brain, and inhibit the transmission of pain signals. They can induce euphoria, particularly when they are taken at higher-than-prescribed dose or administered in other ways than intended, such as by snorting or injecting—which are very dangerous practices that greatly increase a person’s risk for serious medical complications, including overdose. Read more about opioids’ effects on the body.

Why are opioids addictive?

Repeated use of opioids, combined with their euphoric properties and increasing tolerance levels, lead to addiction.  Addiction is a brain disease defined by compulsive use of a chemical despite negative consequences.  Read more about opioid addiction.

My doctor prescribed an opioid to me. Can I take it?

Be an informed patient and communicate with your clinician. Opioids are a category of medications with relatively high risks. These risks require a greater-than-usual degree of partnership with your provider. Read more about how to talk to your doctor

How do I dispose of opioids safely?

In Alexandria, you can dispose of unwanted or unused pills, liquids or other medication at one of three permanent medication drop boxes that provide year-round access to safe drug disposal for all Alexandria residents:

  • Neighborhood Pharmacy2204 Mt Vernon Ave.; open Mon - Fri: 9 a.m. - 7 p.m., Sat: 9 a.m. - 2 p.m. and Sun: 10 a.m. - 1 p.m.
  • Inova Alexandria Hospital: Visitor's Center Lobby (near cashier's window), 4320 Seminary Road; open daily from 1 - 5 p.m. (for updated hours, visit inova.org/visit)
  • Alexandria Police Department Headquarters (just inside front entrance, ring bell for access): 3600 Wheeler Ave.; available 7 days a week, 24 hours a day 

Dispose of needles and syringes at a separate permanent drop box specifically for these items located inside the visitor's entrance at Inova Alexandria Hospital (4320 Seminary Road). The box is located near the permanent medication drop box next to the cahier's window; both drop boxes are available daily from 1-5 p.m. Please note that no needles are accepted in the permanent medication drop boxes. 

An additional three to four designated drop-off sites are made available during Prescription Drug Take Back Days, which are held three to four times a year.

Outside of Alexandria, take advantage of your community’s local “take back” or mail back program or medication drop box at a police station, DEA-authorized collection site or pharmacy. Find a CVS Pharmacy Drop Box location near you.  Find local pharmacies participating as drop-off points by zip code and locations to pick up free drug disposal kits. Learn additional ways to dispose of medications safely at home.      

What are signs of opioid use?

When properly managed in carefully selected patients, there are no signs of opioid use. When used in excess, opioids can produce intoxication and side effects like nausea, sleepiness, confusion and depression. Read more about the signs of opioid misuse.

What are some risk factors for dependency?

Everyone is at risk. There are many risk factors for addiction including poverty, drug availability, family history and exposure to violence. Read more about risk factors at www.drugabuse.gov.

What does the “typical” person who misuses opioids look like?

Individuals who misuse opioids (legal and illegal) come from all walks of life.  Learn more about opioid addiction.

Why can’t I stop misusing opioids on my own?

Repeated drug use changes the brain, including the region that regulates self-control. This makes drug use extremely difficult to stop, especially alone.  Most people with substance use disorders require long-term medical and psychological treatments that bring their body closer to baseline.  Read more about opioid addiction and treatment options in Alexandria.

What is Naloxone/Narcan and where can I get it?

If given in time, Narcan® (also known as Naloxone) can save the life of someone who is overdosing from opioids. This easy to use nasal spray can stop an overdose and restore normal breathing until emergency response can arrive. 

Narcan is available for free from the Alexandria Health Department by calling 703.746.4888 or by emailing opioids@alexandriava.gov.

You can also request Narcan to be mailed to you by emailing your name and mailing address to opioids@alexandriava.gov. There is no cost for the Narcan or mailing.

Read more about how to respond to an overdose or overmedication at OpiRescue.

What is the Good Samaritan law?

According to NCSL, to encourage people to seek out medical attention for an overdose or for follow-up care after Naloxone has been administered, 40 states and the District of Columbia have enacted some form of a Good Samaritan or 911 drug immunity law. These laws generally provide immunity from arrest, charge or prosecution for certain controlled substance possession and paraphernalia offenses when a person who is either experiencing an opiate-related overdose or observing one calls 911 for assistance or seeks medical attention. State laws are also increasingly providing immunity from violations of pretrial, probation or parole conditions and violations of protection or restraining orders. All first responders including police consider saving someone’s life from an overdose their first priority. Read more about safe reporting of overdoses in Virginia and the Good Samaritan Law in general.

What is Methadone?

Methadone is an important tool that has been used to treat opioid addiction since the 1970s. It reduces craving, prevents withdrawal and improves social and occupational outcomes, accomplishing these benefits without euphoria or tolerance. (Source: SAMSHA)

What is the City of Alexandria doing about the opioid problem?

City staff and community partners are working together to respond locally to the effects of the opioid crisis through the Opioid Work Group. Formed in 2015, the Work Group is comprised of representatives from a range of city services that takes a multi-dimensional approach to attacking the crisis by focusing on prevention and education, opioid addiction treatment, overdose response and recovery, diversion into treatment, and supply reduction and other law enforcement strategies.

Read more about the Opioid Work Group, the City's Strategic Three Year Plan (2020 - 2023) to eliminate opioid misuse and its harmful effects throughout Alexandria,  opioid safety and disposal, and treatment and recovery options in Alexandria.

What resources are available here in Alexandria?

Alexandria offers a range of services, programs and resources if you or a loved one is misusing opioids. Learn more about opioid addiction and treatment resources.

If I know someone who is dealing drugs or selling prescription opioids illegally, who should I contact?

Call the Alexandria Police Department at 703.746.6277; you have the option to provide the information anonymously.

What is the role of the police in this? Why don’t they just arrest people who use drugs and put them in jail?

Addiction is a brain disorder best treated with multi-disciplinary medical care. By definition, people dealing with addiction feel physically and psychologically driven to obtain and use drugs despite the negative impact these drugs have on their life. Historically, incarceration has been an unsuccessful way to deal with people who have substance use disorders. Jail does not prevent addiction and jail does not treat addiction. Learn more about opioid addiction and treatment options in Alexandria.

What are other jurisdictions seeing?

Read about the local effects of the national opioid crisis in Virginia and what the Commonwealth is doing about it. Also read about how Fairfax County is addressing the issue in the Fairfax County Opioid Task Force Plan.

I want to help. What can I do? 

There are several things you can do right now to help:

  • Naloxone is available without a prescription at Virginia pharmacies and the Alexandria Health Department for residents who want to be prepared to act should they personally encounter someone overdosing from opioids.  Find out more about Naloxone and how to get it
  • Print, post and distribute this flyer in English or Spanish that explains how to recognize and what to do in the event of an opioid overdose.
  • Participate in Drug Take Back Days and dispose of unused prescription drugs safely. Many Americans are not aware that medicines that languish in home cabinets are highly susceptible to diversion, misuse and abuse. Studies show that a majority of abused prescription drugs are obtained from family and friends, including from the home medicine cabinet. In addition, many Americans do not know how to properly dispose of their unused medicine, often flushing them down the toilet or throwing them away – both potential safety and health hazards. Find local pharmacies participating as drop-off points by zip code and locations to pick up free drug disposal kits.   

Visit www.alexandriava.gov/volunteer or www.volunteeralexandria.org to learn about other opportunities to volunteer in Alexandria.