Learning About Opioids

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Introduction

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 in some cases a doctor might prescribe them 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 strong medicines. They can help you manage pain when you use them the right way. But if you misuse them, they can cause serious harm and even death.

If you decide to take opioids, here are some things to remember.

  • Keep your doctor informed. You can get addicted to opioids. The risk is higher if you have a history of substance use. Your doctor will monitor you closely for signs of misuse and addiction and to figure out when you no longer need to take opioids.
  • Make a treatment plan. The goal of your plan is to be able to function and do the things you need to do, even if you still have some pain. You might be able to manage your pain with other non-opioid options like physiotherapy, relaxation, or over-the-counter pain medicines.
  • Be aware of the side effects. Opioids can cause serious side effects, such as constipation, dry mouth, and nausea. And over time, you may need a higher dose to get pain relief. This is called tolerance. Your body also gets used to opioids. This is called physical dependence. If you suddenly stop taking them, you may have withdrawal symptoms.

Examples

Opioids or other medicines that contain them include:

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

Safety tips

If you need to take opioids to manage your pain, remember these safety tips.

  • Follow directions carefully. It's easy to misuse opioids if you take a dose other than what's prescribed by your doctor. This can lead to overdose and even death. Even sharing them with someone they weren't meant for is misuse.
  • Be cautious. Opioids may affect your judgment and decision making. Do not drive or operate machinery until you can think clearly. Talk with your doctor about when it is safe to drive.
  • Reduce the risk of drug interactions. Opioids can be dangerous if you take them with alcohol or with certain drugs like sleeping pills and muscle relaxers. Make sure your doctor knows about all the other medicines you take, including over-the-counter medicines. Don't start any new medicines before you talk to your doctor or pharmacist.
  • Keep others safe. Store opioids in a safe and secure place. Make sure that pets, children, friends, and family can't get to them. When you're done using opioids, make sure to properly dispose of them. You can either use a community drug take-back program or return the medicine to the pharmacy. Do not flush medicines down the sink or toilet.
  • Reduce the risk of overdose. Misuse of opioids can be very dangerous. Protect yourself by asking your doctor or pharmacist about a naloxone rescue kit. It can help you-and even save your life-if you 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.

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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