HealthSheets™


Taking Opioid Medicines

For your health and safety, it’s important to take opioids exactly as directed. This helps ensure that the medicines work correctly. It also lowers the chances of side effects and the risk for taking too high a dose (overdose). Each different opioid medicine has its own instructions for use. Your healthcare provider will help you understand the ones you’re prescribed and how to take them. If you have questions or concerns, be sure to discuss them with your healthcare provider. 

Using opioids safely

Opioids can work very well to relieve pain. But taking too much, taking them too long, or taking them incorrectly can be harmful. To help reduce the risks to your health, be sure to follow these safety tips:

  • Know if you are supposed to take the medicine on a regular basis or only as needed.

  • If your medicine is taken on a regular basis, take it on time and in the right dose. If you miss a dose, don’t double up the next dose.

  • Use a medicine log, app, or calendar to keep track of when you take your medicine. This helps you stay on schedule and avoid missing doses or taking extra doses.

  • When taking liquid doses of opioids, use a measuring spoon or dropper. This way you can be sure to receive the correct dose.

  • Report any side effects that you have to your healthcare provider right away.

  • Don’t cut, crush, or alter your medicine in any way.

  • Don’t take someone else’s opioids or share yours with others.

  • Don’t drive or use dangerous equipment or power tools while taking opioids.

  • Check expiration dates regularly and dispose of any expired medicines properly. 

Beware of medicine interactions

Certain medicines can be dangerous, even fatal, when used with opioids. That’s why it’s important tell your healthcare provider and pharmacist about all of the medicines you’re taking. This includes over-the-counter medicines, herbal remedies, supplements, and even illegal or street drugs. Medicines that may be unsafe to use with opioids include:

  • Other over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen

  • Other prescription opioids

  • Benzodiazepines (clonazepam or alprazolam or other like medicines)

  • Muscle relaxants (cyclobenzaprine or carisoprodol or other like medicines)

  • Hypnotics (sleep aids like zolpidem or other like medicines)

WARNING: Never combine opioids with alcohol or street drugs. This can be fatal.

 

Signs and symptoms of opioid overdose

Opioids affect the part of the brain that affects breathing. An overdose of opioids can slow breathing down too much and even stop a person’s breathing. This can be fatal. Call 911 right away if an overdose is suspected in any person. 

Three key signs and symptoms to look for are:

  • Narrowing of dark circles in the middle of eyes (pinpoint pupils)

  • Slowed or stopped breathing

  • Unconsciousness. This is when a person passes out and does not respond. 

Other signs and symptoms to look for include:

  • Limp body

  • Pale face

  • Clammy skin

  • Purple or blue color lips and fingernails

  • Vomiting

Storing opioids safely

Opioids need to be stored safely. This helps protect others (including adults and children) from accidentally taking the medicine. It also helps prevent the theft and misuse of the medicine. If possible, store the medicine in a locked container or cupboard that others cannot access. Store the medicine in a cool dry place. Avoid bathrooms, if possible. Always return the medicine to its secure location after each use. 

Disposing opioids

Unused or expired opioids must be disposed of properly to prevent harm. Don’t save your medicine or give it to others for any reason. Even a single dose of opioids can lead to death if it used by someone other than who the medicine is prescribed for. To dispose of your medicine safely:

  • Find your community’s medicine take-back program. This may involve dropping off the medicine at a local police station or pharmacy.

  • Some pharmacies also have mail-back programs. This typically involves sending the medicine through the mail using a special medicine disposal envelope.

If these options are not available to you, ask your healthcare provider for help.

 

The FDA also has guidelines for flushing opioids down the toilet or disposing them in the trash. You can learn more at the following website: www.fda.gov/drugs/resourcesforyou/consumers/buyingusingmedicinesafely/ensuringsafeuseofmedicine/safedisposalofmedicines/ucm186187.htm. Before using these options, check with your local water and waste management company to determine if this is allowed in your city or state. 

Stopping opioid treatment

If you have been taking an opioid for more than a few weeks, your body gets used to having it. When you stop taking the medicine, withdrawal symptoms may develop that range from mild to severe. The list of possible withdrawal symptoms is very long. They can include:

  • Restlessness and anxiety

  • Muscle aches

  • Sweating

  • Dilated pupils

  • Watery eyes

  • Runny nose

  • Problems sleeping

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Abdominal cramping

  • Diarrhea

  • Rapid heartbeat

To stop opioid treatment safely and to help manage withdrawal symptoms, you will need help from your healthcare provider. In most cases, the amount of medicine you take will be cut down and you will be weaned off the medicine slowly over several weeks. If needed, other medicines and treatments may also be used to help with this process. As the opioid medicine clears from your system, your body will readjust to not having it. Withdrawal symptoms should then go away. How long this takes can vary for every person.

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