Opioid Painkillers: 10 Tips on How to Use Opioids Safely


Addiction to opioids — painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, and fentanyl — have recently garnered mainstream attention as fatal overdoses to the medications have hit epidemic proportions. According to the New York Times, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50, with the majority (more than six out of ten) involving an opioid. With an alarming number of opioid-related overdoses, learning the facts about opioid safety is more important than ever.

While opioid-associated addiction is on the rise, so are more opioid safety initiatives to help drive down these statistics. These opioid safety guidelines are intended to provide healthcare providers with a framework by which to evaluate, treat, and manage the individual needs and preferences of patients with chronic pain, who are currently on or are being considered for long-term opioid therapy.

Key Tips for Opioid Safety

1. Know the Side Effects
Opioids can produce a number of serious side effects including dizziness and drowsiness — and can even affect a person’s ability to breathe properly. In fact, taking just one large dose could result in fatal breathing complications.

2. Taper Off of Opioids
If you’re taking opioids for an extended period of time, the CDC suggests tapering off the medication with the guidance of your health care professional. Often when opioids are stopped abruptly, people can suffer withdrawal symptoms, including worsening pain, nausea, anxiety, depression, restlessness, suicidal thoughts and other debilitating effects.

3. Never Adjust Your Own Dosage
Taking opioids in greater amounts or more often than prescribed makes addiction or overdose become more likely. If you are still in pain after taking the opioid as your doctor prescribed, talk to your healthcare provider about safer ways to control the pain.

4. Keep Opioids Locked
Opioid pain prescriptions may be deadly someone takes them by accident. Make sure you keep these medications away from the reach of children and do not share them with other family members. Also, be sure to contact the police if you suspect your opioids have been stolen.

5. Never Mix Meds
Combining anti-anxiety like Xanax or sleep medications like Ambien with prescription opioids can be deadly.

6. Alternative Pain Management
Talk to your healthcare provider about ways to manage your pain that don’t involve taking prescription opioids. Some of these options may actually work better and have fewer risks and side effects.

7. Be Open with Your Doctor
Keep your doctor in the know by being honest about all your current medicines and health history.History of drug misuse and mental health conditions (such as depression or anxiety) are especially important as they increase your risk for dangerous side effects such as overdose.

8. Safely Dispose of Any Unused Pills
Don’t flush prescription drugs down the toilet or wash them down the sink, as they can harm drinking water, wildlife, pets and people. The safest and most environmentally responsible option is to take unwanted medications to a drug take-back site.

9. Don’t Mix Opioids with Alcohol
Studies show that mixing opioids with alcohol increases the risk of a potentially life-threatening side effect known as respiratory depression, which causes breathing to become extremely shallow or stop altogether.

10. Track Your Opioid Intake
To avoid a dangerous combination of medications, use a log to track your use of any prescribed medications and over-the-counter drugs. Keep this record in a safe place, and show it to your doctor or pharmacist whenever a medication is added or changed.

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