Safe Use of Opioid Pain Medicine: Care Instructions

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Pain involves unpleasant emotions and feelings. Pain feels different for everybody. Only you can describe your pain.

A doctor can suggest or prescribe many types of medicines for pain. These range from over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen (Tylenol) to powerful medicines called opioids. Examples of opioids are fentanyl, hydrocodone, and morphine. Heroin is an illegal opioid

Opioids are strong medicines. They can help you manage pain when you use them the right way. They can cause serious harm and even death. For these reasons, doctors are very careful about how they prescribe opioids. If opioids are used, your doctor will give you the lowest dose for the shortest possible time.

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

  • Keep your doctor informed. You can develop opioid use disorder. Moderate to severe opioid use disorder is sometimes called addiction. The risk is higher if you have a history of substance use. Your doctor will monitor you closely for signs of opioid use disorder 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. These include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), physical therapy, relaxation, non-opioid prescription pain medicine, and over-the-counter medicines.
  • Be aware of the side effects. Opioids can cause side effects, such as constipation, sleepiness, 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. Serious risks of using opioids include overdose and death.
  • Know the risk factors for addiction. Your risk for opioid use disorder is higher if you have a history of substance use disorder. Other things that increase the risk include being a teenager, being an older adult, having a history of mental illness, and taking high doses of opioid medicine.

The doctor carefully considered what pain medicine is right for you. You may not have received opioids if your doctor was concerned about drug interactions or your safety, or if your doctor had other concerns.

It is best to have one doctor or clinic treat your pain. This way they can find the treatment that will help you the most. And a doctor will be able to watch for any problems that the medicine might cause.

The doctor has checked you carefully, but problems can develop later. If you notice any problems or new symptoms, get medical treatment right away.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?

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 accidental 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 while you take them. 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. The combination can decrease your breathing rate and lead to overdose or death. 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.
  • Safely store and dispose of opioids. 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 dispose of them safely and as quickly as possible. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends these disposal options.
    • The best option is to take your medicine to a drop-off box or take-back program that is authorized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
    • If these programs aren't available in your area and your medicine doesn't have specific disposal instructions (such as flushing), you can throw them into your household trash if you follow the FDA's instructions. Visit and search for "unused medicine disposal."
    • If you have opioid patches (used or unused), your options are to take them to a DEA-authorized site or flush them down the toilet. Do not throw them in the trash.
    • Only flush your medicine down the toilet if you can't get to a DEA-approved site or your medicine instructions state clearly to flush them.
  • Reduce the risk of overdose. Opioids can be very dangerous. Protect yourself by asking your doctor about a naloxone rescue kit. It can help you—and even save your life—if you take too much of an opioid.

Try other ways to reduce pain.

  • Relax, and reduce stress. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation can help.
  • Keep moving. Gentle, daily exercise can help reduce pain over the long run. Try low- or no-impact exercises such as walking, swimming, and stationary biking. Do stretches to stay flexible.
  • Help yourself with healthy thinking through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy is used to help people think in a healthy way. It focuses on thought (cognitive) and action (behavioral).
  • Try heat, cold packs, and massage.
  • Get enough sleep. Pain can make you tired and drain your energy. Talk with your doctor if you have trouble sleeping because of pain.
  • Think positive. Your thoughts can affect your pain level. Do things that you enjoy to distract yourself when you have pain instead of focusing on the pain. See a movie, read a book, listen to music, or spend time with a friend.

When should you call for help?

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

  • You have signs of an overdose. These include:
    • Slow, shallow, or stopped breathing.
    • Pinpoint pupils.
    • Blue or purple lips or fingertips.
    • No response when you ask questions, shake the person, or rub the person's breastbone with your knuckles.
    • Seizures.
  • 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 lightheaded or suddenly feel weak, confused, or restless.
    • Severe belly pain, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.

If you have a naloxone rescue kit, use it after you call 911.

Call your doctor 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.
    • Mild belly pain or nausea.

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

  • You think you might be taking too much pain medicine, and you need help to take less or stop.
  • Your medicine is not helping with the pain.
  • You are having side effects, such as constipation or trouble urinating.

Where can you learn more?

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.