How to Use Prescription Pain Medications Safely

Published: March 30, 2021

Stories abound lately in the news about what is being called an epidemic of opioid medication addiction in the U.S. If a doctor has ever prescribed this type of painkiller for you, it's important to understand how to take it safely and effectively while minimizing the risk of side effects or addiction. Below are some answers to commonly asked questions about opioid medications.

What are opioids?

Opioids are a class of prescription pain medications related to morphine. Opioids include codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, methadone, and oxycodone.

Opioid medicines are useful for acute pain, such as the pain experienced during or after surgery or the pain associated with advanced cancer. Opioids may also be used to treat severe chronic pain that has not been controlled by nonopioid treatments. However, studies have not yet been done to determine whether opioids control chronic pain well when used in the long term. Although opioids can be highly effective in the treatment of severe pain, it’s important to understand that they can have unwanted side effects and may lead to addiction.

Why should I be concerned?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more deaths occur as a result of opioid overdose than all other drug overdoses combined, including cocaine and heroin. In fact, from 1999 to 2014, more than 165,000 Americans have died from overdoses involving prescription opioids. Addiction is patient-specific. It can happen quickly or over time, as each individual has inherent risk factors for possible addiction. If you or your family has a history of abuse, be sure to discuss this with your healthcare provider before taking any opioids.

What do I need to know about opioids?

Follow the steps below to stay safe and protect your loved ones:

  • Because of the risks involved, opioids should be taken only at the lowest dose and for the shortest period of time necessary.
  • The CDC has published guidelines for doctors to use when prescribing medications for pain. The CDC recommends not using opioid medications for chronic conditions such as back pain, fibromyalgia, migraines, osteoarthritis, and other non-cancer chronic conditions. Studies have not proven the effectiveness of opioids in treating this kind of pain over time and, therefore, should be used only for acute pain crises.
  • Many states have passed laws or are considering passage of laws that limit opioid prescription amount to a 7-day supply for acute pain and a 30-day supply for chronic pain. In many cases, a physician’s visit is required to authorize additional medication.
  • Opioids can have significant side effects, ranging from mild (dizziness, nausea/vomiting, constipation, itching, rash) to severe (bowel obstruction from severe constipation, allergic reactions, slowed breathing).
  • If at any time you or someone you know taking opioids experiences severe sleepiness, slowed breathing, or disorientation, immediately stop taking the medication and call your doctor, go to the emergency room, or call 911. Do not consume alcohol while taking opioid medications, as this may increase the adverse effects.
  • An antidote called naloxone can reverse the adverse effects mentioned previously. Ask your physician or pharmacist if naloxone should be prescribed along with the opioid. They can help you determine your risk for these adverse effects.
  • Take your medication exactly as prescribed. Contact your physician if you experience significant side effects or if your pain is poorly controlled. Your doctor may prescribe a new dose or recommend a different treatment.
  • Do not share your medication with anyone. Your healthcare provider has prescribed a medication that is just for you and your health condition. This medication may not work the same way in another person or could even cause him or her harm.
  • Store medications in a safe location that is out of the reach of others, especially children and adolescents or individuals with a history of addiction. Safely discard any unused medication by referring to the Food and Drug Administration’s instructions for safe disposal of medications. Prescription take-back programs such as the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA’s) National Take-Back Initiative provide a safe, convenient, and responsible way to dispose of prescription drugs.

Where can I find more information about opioid addiction?

Many resources are available about the safe use of opioids and to assist people who struggle with substance abuse, including the following:

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