Prescription opioids are powerful pain-reducing medications that have both benefits as well as potentially serious risks.1 Even when taken as prescribed, and especially when misused or abused, opioid pain medicines can put you at risk for opioid addiction and abuse that can lead to overdose and death. If you or a family member are prescribed opioids, consider the following before initiating or continuing a course of treatment.
Consider non-opioid treatment options for chronic pain
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, opioids are not the first-line therapy for chronic pain outside of active cancer treatment, palliative care, and end-of-life care.2 The CDC recommends using non-opioid therapies to the extent possible, including non-drug treatments (e.g., exercise, cognitive behavioral therapy, and interdisciplinary rehabilitation).3
Read this CDC fact sheet for more information about non-opioid treatments and non-drug options for chronic pain.
If you are prescribed an opioid, ask questions
Prescription opioids should only be considered when alternative treatment options are inadequate and expected benefits outweigh potential risks to the patient. The CDC recommends that if opioid medications are prescribed, they should be given at the lowest effective dose and for the shortest adequate duration.2
If a healthcare practitioner prescribes an opioid to help with your pain, ask questions and be sure you fully understand a given course of treatment, including when and how to properly stop taking the medication.4 Never increase the dosage or frequency of taking your medications, or add other medications, on your own. It’s important to discuss the risks of the opioid medication you are prescribed and make sure to tell your prescriber about any past substance use issues with drugs or alcohol, about you and your family’s history of addiction or mental illness, as well as any other medications you are taking.
Tell your doctors and pharmacists about all of the medications you are taking and don’t combine opioids with other medications or substances unless your doctor says it is okay to do so
To help reduce the risk of dangerous drug interactions, be sure to tell your doctors and pharmacists about all the medications you are currently taking.4 Taking opioids in combination with certain prescription or over-the-counter medicines or other substances – including alcohol – can result in serious harm or even death. Don’t take an opioid pain medicine unless it has been prescribed for you by a healthcare practitioner and be sure to follow their instructions – to the letter.
Additional information about the risks and side effects of opioid use can be found in this CDC fact sheet and in A Guide to Safe Use of Pain Medicine, developed by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Read FDA-approved Medication Guides
Medication Guides are handouts that come with many prescription medications. While many pharmacies provide printed information when a medication is picked up, Medication Guides are different because the FDA approves the content of every Medication Guide and your pharmacist is required to give you one each time you pick up your opioid prescription.
Medication Guides for opioids contain important information for patients and caregivers about serious and common risks including misuse, abuse, addiction, overdose, and death. Medication Guides also include information about safe storage and what to do with any remaining or unused pills after someone stops taking them.
Look for the words Medication Guide at the top of the page to ensure you are reading the correct document and ask your pharmacist any questions about your medication.
Drug products that have Medication Guides can also be found on the FDA’s website.
Don’t share medications
Never, ever share your medication with another person. Remember, medication that your doctor has determined is okay for you when taken as directed may pose serious or life-threatening risks for someone else.4 Also, sharing prescription medications is against the law.
Properly store and dispose of medications
Never leave opioids where family, friends, children, or visitors may have access to them, including in your medicine cabinet. Once an opioid medication is no longer required, be sure to dispose of it properly by bringing it to a community collection site or drug takeback program, or flushing it down the toilet.4
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) offers a helpful locator to find your nearest collection site.
With opioids, disposing of unused or unneeded medications is particularly important because more than 50 percent of people who report that they have misused prescription opioids say they have gotten them from friends or relatives – in other words, the medicine they misused was not prescribed for them.5 Unused medications can also become a household danger when consumed accidentally, especially by small children, resulting in emergency room visits, hospitalization and even death.6
More information on safe disposal is available on the FDA’s website.
Know that help is available for addiction
Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease and, as such, needs treatment. If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid addiction, seek help. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) confidential and anonymous Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator can be accessed here, and their free and confidential National Helpline can be reached through 1-800-662-HELP (4357) and 1-800-487-4889 (TTY).
Learn more about the risks of opioids on the CDC’s website.
1. US Food and Drug Administration. Opioid Medications. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DrugSafety/InformationbyDrugClass/ucm337066.htm on August 27, 2018.
2. Dowell D, Haegerich TM, Chou R. CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain — United States, 2016. MMWR Recomm Rep 2016;65(No. RR-1):1–49. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.rr6501e1.
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nonopioid Treatments for Chronic Pain. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/pdf/nonopioid_treatments-a.pdf on August 15, 2018.
4. Mayo Clinic (2018) How to use opioids safely. Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/prescription-drug-abuse/in-depth/how-to-use-opioids-safely/art-20360373 on August 22, 2018.
5. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. SMA 17-5044, NSDUH Series H-52). Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from: https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-FFR1-2016/NSDUH-FFR1-2016.htm on August 22, 2018.
6. Crane, E.H. (2017) Emergency Department Visits Involving the Accidental Ingestion of Opioid Pain Relievers by Children Aged 1 to 5. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD. Retrieved from: https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/emergency-department-visits-involving-accidental-ingestion-opioid-pain-relievers-children on August 22, 2018.