In the past, opioids were used only for short periods for short-term pain or for cancer pain. Many experts now also use them for longer periods to treat chronic pain. You can take these drugs, which are sometimes called narcotics or opiates, to reduce pain and increase your functioning. Examples include fentanyl, hydromorphone, morphine, and oxycodone. Heroin is an example of an illegal opioid.
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. For these reasons, it is important to use them exactly as your doctor prescribes.
You can get addicted to opioids. The risk is higher if you have a history of substance use. Some people have more problems with opioids, including teenagers, older adults, people who have depression, people who have sleep apnea, and those who take high doses of medicine. Your doctor will monitor you closely for signs of misuse and addiction and to figure out when you no longer need to take opioids.
Your body gets used to opioids, which may lead to tolerance and physical dependence. These are not the same as addiction.
- Tolerance means that, over time, you may need to take more of the drug to keep getting the same amount of pain relief. The danger is that tolerance greatly increases your risk of overdose, breathing emergencies, and death.
- Physical dependence means your body has become used to having opioids, and you could have withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking them. Symptoms include nausea, sweating, chills, diarrhea, and shaking. But you can avoid these symptoms if you slowly stop taking the medicine as your doctor tells you to.
What should you do if you think you may be dependent?
If you think you may be dependent, talk to your doctor. Signs of dependence include the following:
- Your drug use is having a bad effect on your family life, your job, or other activities.
- You keep using the drug even though it is actually harming your body or your behaviour.
- You're taking larger amounts of the drug than was intended. Or you're taking it longer than was intended.
When you are dependent on painkillers for a long time, withdrawal can be very difficult. But treatment is available to help you through that process.
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Donald Sproule, MDCM, CCFP - Family Medicine
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Robert B. Keller, MD - Orthopedics
Current as ofFebruary 6, 2018
Current as of: February 6, 2018
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & Donald Sproule, MDCM, CCFP - Family Medicine & Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Robert B. Keller, MD - Orthopedics