What you need to know about opioids

February 16, 2017

It's tough to live with chronic pain, but millions of Americans do. That's one reason why prescription opioids are so popular.iStock-518023438.jpg

These powerful medications are good at relieving pain in the short term. They also help people with active cancer and people receiving hospice or palliative care cope with pain.

But opioids come with some serious risks, including the risk of addiction and unintentional overdose and death.

As many as 1 in 4 people who take opioids for a long time become addicted to the drugs (a condition known as opioid use disorder). And more than 165,000 people in the U.S. died from opioid overdose between 1999 and 2014.

Names to know

Well-known brand-name painkillers, like Vicodin (hydrocodone) and OxyContin (oxycodone), are opioids. So are generic drugs, such as:

  • Buprenorphine.
  • Codeine.
  • Fentanyl.
  • Hydromorphone.
  • Methadone.
  • Morphine.
  • Oxymorphone.

Finding solutions

To help curb opioid addiction and overdose deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued new guidelines for prescribing the drugs to treat chronic pain. The guidelines encourage doctors to start low and go slow when prescribing opioids in order to reduce the risks linked to long-term use. (The guidelines don't apply to cancer patients or those receiving hospice or palliative care.)

If you're living with chronic pain, talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits of taking opioids. Be honest about any personal history of drug or alcohol addiction. Also discuss other ways to help manage your pain, such as physical therapy, exercise and nonopioid medications.

Then if your doctor does prescribe an opioid, be sure to:

  • Never mix the drug with alcohol. And don't take it with other substances or medications without your doctor's OK.
  • Never take more of the medication than prescribed.
  • Never share the medication with friends or family. And keep it locked away and well out of reach of curious children and teens.

Alert your doctor if you experience side effects from an opioid—such as constipation, nausea, vomiting, dry mouth, sleepiness, confusion or decreased sex drive—or if you need to take more of the medication to get the same pain relief.

Additional source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

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