Opioids are a class of drugs used to relieve pain. These include legally available prescription drugs such as:
- Oxycodone (OxyContin)
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
- Illegal substances such as heroin
If you’ve been prescribed opioids by your doctor, you may be worried about opiate misuse, dependency, and/or overdose. And with recent spikes in overdose rates across the United States, this is a valid concern.
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, in 2015 about 2 million people in the U.S. misused opioids by using them beyond medically necessary circumstances. More than 20,000 Americans die of overdoses related to prescription pain relievers every year.
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Risk of Opioid Misuse
If you’re prescribed opioids for pain, are you at risk for becoming addicted to opiates? Opioid pain relievers are generally safe when taken for a short period of time and as prescribed.
Because opioids can produce euphoria in addition to pain relief, they may be misused, and even when taken according to directions may lead to dependence and interactions with other substances and medications.
If you’re concerned about becoming addicted to opiates, there are a few things you should consider discussing with your doctor:
Consider Other Medications
Even if you have intense pain, there are non-opioid options that could help with pain relief. In most cases, it’s best to start with non-opioid options before taking an opioid, to help minimize the risk of addiction. Talk to your doctor about pain relief alternatives.
- Follow all prescription guidelines
- Only take medication that is prescribed to you, do not take someone else’s prescription even if it is for a legitimate purpose
- Take the medication as directed and do not crush pills
- Do not take opioids with alcohol
- Ask your pharmacist about other drugs that may interact with your prescription
- Make sure you understand the signs of an overdose or a bad reaction to the medication
- Follow up with your physician as directed
Only Take It for as Long as Necessary
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the longer you take opioids, the higher your chance of being on the medication a year later.
- If you receive a one-day opioid prescription, you have a 6 percent chance of being on opioids for a year or longer.
- With a five-day supply, the chances of opiate dependency jump to 10 percent, and with a 10-day prescription, the odds of being on opioids a year later increases to 20 percent.
“Ask that your doctor prescribe the lowest dose and the smallest quantity you may need and find out when to call to follow up on how well it is working,” suggests the Federal Drug Administration.
Avoid If You Have a History of Addiction
A history of addiction to any substance means an even higher risk of opioid addiction. If you or a family member have a history of a substance use disorder, definitely tell your doctor. If you’ve been addicted to opioids in the past, your doctor should not prescribe them to you at all.
Discuss Your Other Meds
Some medications — especially medication for anxiety, sleeping problems, or seizures — can interact negatively with opioids. Talk to your doctor about any other medications you take.
Store Your Meds Safely
If you have children at home, store your medication in a locked box and out of reach. Even one accidental dose of opioids can cause a fatal overdose for a child.
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Understand the Risks, Signs, and Symptoms of Overdose
Opioids can affect respiration and slow breathing rates, especially if misused, taken in too high a dose, or mixed with other substances such as alcohol or benzodiazepines (e.g. Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, Valium, etc.).
Signs of prescription drug or other opiate overdose:
- Slowed breathing rate
- Blue lips and/or fingernails
- Cold damp skin
- Vomiting or gurgling noise
People who are showing symptoms of overdose need urgent medical help (call 911 immediately). A drug called naloxone can be given to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and prevent death — but only if it is given in time.
Dispose of Medications Properly
If there’s no drug take-back program near you, the FDA suggests flushing your leftover opioids down the toilet or mixing them with an unappealing substance, like used coffee grounds or kitty litter. Some drugs will have disposal suggestions on the label.
It’s important to always ask questions before accepting an opioid prescription. There may be other alternatives available to you. If opioids are your best option for pain relief, consider taking a shortened dose to reduce risk. For more information about opioid medications and addiction, find a doctor at UPMC.
If you are misusing your prescription opioid or using an illegal opioid there is treatment available for you.
Call Addiction Medicine Services at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC at 412-692-2273 (CARE) or the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Get Help Now hotline at 1-800-662-4357 (HELP).
Based in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and more than 700 doctor’s offices and outpatient centers. Our expert physicians are among the leaders in their fields, and we are leaders in groundbreaking research and treatment breakthroughs. UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside ranks as “One of America’s Best Hospitals” and No. 1 in Pennsylvania in U.S. News & World Report’s listings.