Learning About Opioids

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Opioids are medicines used to relieve moderate to severe pain. They may be used for a short time for pain, such as after surgery. Or they may be used for long-term pain. They don't cure a health problem. But they help you manage the pain.

Opioids relieve pain by changing the way your body feels pain and the way you feel about pain.

Sometimes opioids are used for people who can't take other pain medicines. They may be prescribed if you have heart, kidney, or liver problems. For instance, you may take an opioid instead of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve).

Opioids are powerful medicines. You may need to take extra steps to stay safe.


Opioids or other medicines that contain them include:

  • Acetaminophen and codeine (Tylenol #1, Tylenol #2, Tylenol #3).
  • Codeine.
  • Hydrocodone (Hycodan).
  • Oxycodone (Oxy-IR, OxyNEO).

Safety tips

Taking too much (overdose) of an opioid can cause death. To avoid an overdose:

  • Be safe with medicines. Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor or nurse call line if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
  • Do not break, crush, or chew a pill. Do not cut or tear a patch.
  • Do not drink alcohol. Do not take illegal drugs.
  • Do not drive or operate machinery until the medicine effects are gone. Wait until you can think clearly.
  • Keep your medicine away from children and pets. Store it in a safe and secure place.
  • Call your doctor or nurse call line if you miss a dose of your medicine and aren't sure what to do. Do not double your dose.
  • Check with your doctor or pharmacist before you use any other medicines. This includes over-the-counter medicines. Make sure your doctor knows all of the medicines and natural health products you take. Taking some medicines together can cause problems.
  • Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about a naloxone rescue kit. This can be helpful and lifesaving if you took or take too much of an opioid. You can get a naloxone rescue kit without a prescription at most drugstores.

Side effects

Common side effects include:

  • Constipation.
  • Feeling dizzy or light-headed. You may feel like you might faint.
  • Feeling sleepy.
  • Nausea or vomiting.

You may have other side effects or reactions. Check the information that comes with your medicine.

What to know about taking this medicine

  • Your body gets used to opioids if you take them all of the time. You could develop tolerance. This means you need more medicine to get the same pain relief. The danger is that tolerance greatly increases your risk of overdose, breathing emergencies, and death. You may also get dependent on the medicine, which can cause withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking them. Symptoms of withdrawal include nausea, sweating, chills, diarrhea, anxiety, and shaking. But you can avoid these symptoms if you slowly stop taking the medicine as your doctor tells you to.
  • There is a small risk of addiction when you take opioids. The risk is greater for those who have a history of substance use. Some people have more problems with opioids. Teenagers, older adults, people who have depression, people who have sleep apnea, and those who take high doses of medicine may have more problems with opioids.
  • Some opioids have acetaminophen in them. Check the labels on all the other medicines you take. This includes over-the-counter drugs. Many medicines have acetaminophen. Do not take others with acetaminophen in them unless your doctor has told you to. Taking too much acetaminophen can be harmful. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions about this.
  • Be sure you know how to safely get rid of any leftover medicine. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about how to do this. Ask for written instructions.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have symptoms of a severe allergic reaction. These may include:
    • Sudden raised, red areas (hives) all over your body.
    • Swelling of the throat, mouth, lips, or tongue.
    • Trouble breathing.
    • Passing out (losing consciousness). Or you may feel very light-headed or suddenly feel weak, confused, or restless.
  • You have signs of an overdose. These include:
    • Cold, clammy skin.
    • Confusion.
    • Severe nervousness or restlessness.
    • Severe dizziness, drowsiness, or weakness.
    • Slow breathing.
    • Seizures.

Call your doctor or nurse call line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have symptoms of an allergic reaction, such as:
    • A rash or hives (raised, red areas on the skin).
    • Itching.
    • Swelling.
    • Belly pain, nausea, or vomiting.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse call line if:

  • Your medicine is not helping with the pain.
  • You are having problems with your medicine.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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