Aches and pains that last for more than a few days may lead you to your doctor’s office. But handling pain can be tricky, especially when opioid drugs are prescribed.
Researchers found that one-third of adults in the U.S. were prescribed an opioid in 2015. These strong pain meds have their place. But opioid misuse can lead to addiction. It can lead to overdose. It can lead to death. In fact, opioids can cause serious side effects even when they’re used as directed. These include depression, confusion, sleepiness and constipation.
Opioid misuse has become a public health crisis: About 115 Americans die each day from overdosing on prescription opioids.
What to Look For
When you get a new prescription from your doctor, look to see if it is one of these commonly prescribed opioids:
- Fentanyl (Duragesic)
- Hydrocodone (Lorcet, Lortab, Vicodin)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
- Meperidine (Demerol)
- Morphine (Avinza, Kadian, MS Contin)
- Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percodan, Percoset)
- Oxymorphone (Opana)
- Propoxyphene (Darvon)
If your prescription is for an opioid, talk with your doctor about how to take them safely.
What to Ask
If your doctor suggests an opioid, ask these seven questions before you head to the drugstore:
- Are there other options?
There may be other effective options for you. Based on your case, your doctor may suggest over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil). Or your doctor may order drugs that target a basic health problem that is causing your pain. For example, you could take an anti-swelling drug (NSAID) for joint swelling or a triptan medicine for migraines. Other options may involve shots, physical therapy or exercise.
- If I need an opioid, how long should I take it?
Ask your doctor to order the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible time. For short-term pain, such as the pain you feel after dental surgery or a bad sports injury, a three-day prescription is often all you need. For long-lasting issues, such as joint swelling or chronic back pain, other treatments may be safer and more helpful than opioids.
- How can I cut my chance of side effects?
Use the medicine as directed. If you still have pain, call your doctor. Don’t increase the dose. Don’t take it more often than prescribed. Don’t take them and drink alcohol.
- Could the opioid interact with my other medicines?
Review all of your prescription and OTC drugs with your doctor, even those you take only now and then. It’s especially important to tell your doctor about anti-anxiety drugs, muscle relaxants, seizure medicines and sleeping pills.
- What if I have a history of drug or alcohol problems?
Talk with your doctor about any problems you’ve had with drugs, alcohol or smoking. And tell your doctor if a member of your family has a history of drug abuse. A tendency to become addicted can run in families. If you live with someone who is in recovery, discuss how to protect them.
- Where should I keep my medicines?
If you spend time with children or young adults, think about keeping the medicine in a lockbox. For children, an accidental overdose can be deadly. For teens, easy access to opioids may lead to misuse.
- What are some danger signs?
Learn to spot the side effects of opioids, such as too much sleepiness, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, confusion, and cravings for more of the drug. Be sure to talk to your doctor about any side effects you have.
Do you need help with addiction?
If you or a loved one has become addicted to opioids, get help right away. Talk to your doctor or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s national helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357). The helpline is a confidential, free information service for individuals and family members facing mental health issues and/or substance use disorders. The helpline is available in English and Spanish 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
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Sources: Prescription Opioid Use, Misuse, and Use Disorders in U.S. Adults: 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Annals of Internal Medicine, 2017; What to Ask Your Doctor Before Taking Opioids, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2017; Misuse of Prescription Drugs, Over-the-Counter Medicines, Opioid Overdose Crisis, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institutes of Health, 2018; Genetics and Epigenetics of Addiction, NIDA, 2016; What Is Chronic Pain? American Academy of Family Physicians, 2017; Opioid Overdose Frequently Asked Questions, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017