OBJECTIVES: To examine patterns of onset and abuse/dependence episodes of prescription opioid (PO) and heroin use disorders in a national sample of adults, and to explore differences by gender and substance abuse treatment status. METHODS: Analyses of data from the 2001-2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (N = 43,093). RESULTS: Of all respondents, 5% (n = 1815) reported a history of nonmedical PO use (NMPOU) and 0.3% (n = 150) a history of heroin use. Abuse was more prevalent than dependence among NMPOUs (PO abuse, 29%; dependence, 7%) and heroin users (heroin abuse, 63%; dependence, 28%). Heroin users reported a short mean interval from first use to onset of abuse (1.5 years) or dependence (2.0 years), and a lengthy mean duration for the longest episode of abuse (66 months) or dependence (59 months); the corresponding mean estimates for PO abuse and dependence among NMPOUs were 2.6 and 2.9 years, respectively, and 31 and 49 months, respectively. The mean number of years from first use to remission from the most recent episode was 6.9 years for PO abuse and 8.1 years for dependence; the mean number of years from first heroin use to remission from the most recent episode was 8.5 years for heroin abuse and 9.7 years for dependence. Most individuals with PO or heroin use disorders were remitted from the most recent episode. Treated individuals, whether their problem was heroin or POs, tended to have a longer mean duration of an episode than untreated individuals. CONCLUSION: Periodic remissions from opioid or heroin abuse or dependence episodes occur commonly but take a long time. Timely and effective use of treatment services are needed to mitigate the many adverse consequences from opioid/heroin abuse and dependence.