Opioids are highly addictive drugs that act on the brain to alleviate pain. They include opioid medications that doctors prescribe to relieve pain after serious injury or surgery, as well as illicit drugs such as heroin. Examples of prescription opioids include oxycodone, morphine, codeine, fentanyl and hydrocodone (commonly known as Norco and Vicodin).
Unfortunately, people can become addicted to opioids even when they are prescribed by a doctor and used as directed. Since 1999, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids has quadrupled. 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.
Elizabeth Bulat, M.D., an addiction medicine physician and medical director at Henry Ford Maplegrove Center, helps patients throughout Michigan overcome opioid addiction. Here, she offers tips for what you need to know before starting these potent medications.
- Opioids are habit-forming. Many of us know that opioids can lead to addiction. But it may be surprising to learn just how quickly dependency can happen.“Opioids are strong drugs – especially those that are synthetically created, like fentanyl,” Dr. Bulat says. “After even one use they can lead to feelings of addiction, which is why it’s crucial to know what you are prescribed and when to take your medication.”
- Be cautious. Like with any new prescription, it’s important to know how it could react with any current medication you are taking. Talk to your doctor and/or pharmacist about any concerns before starting these drugs.“Opioids affect certain receptors in the brain that slow down breathing. Taken in concurrence with other substances that have the same effect, such as alcohol, and you could face serious or even deadly side effects,” she says.
- Take as needed, but not regularly. Opioids are prescribed for short-term pain management. Doctors generally recommend that opioid prescriptions are to be taken once every several hours as needed but not regularly – meaning your pain level, not the clock, should dictate if the next dose is needed when the time comes.“Taking opioids systematically – once every eight hours, for example – may not be needed if your pain is manageable or controlled by other means, such as Tylenol or ibuprofen,” Dr. Bulat says.Another helpful tip: Talk with your doctor about alternative ways to manage pain. From warm or cold compresses to acupuncture, there are numerous other ways to alleviate discomfort.
- Pay attention to how you feel. Keep tabs on your behavior and the way your medication makes you feel. Are you following your prescription? Do you enjoy the way it makes you feel?“Let a loved one know you have been prescribed opioids for pain medication,” Dr. Bulat says. “This person can help you manage your prescription and monitor your behavior, and in the event you start to feel dependency, can help you get proper support.”
- Securely store your medication. While you are taking these medications, be aware of who is in your home, such as children, teens or neighbors. Make sure these drugs are kept out of sight.“Because these are highly addictive and potentially dangerous drugs, it’s especially important to store them safely and securely — out of reach of anyone who should not have access to them,” she says.
- Safely dispose of your unused medication. “If you have pills left over, you should also make sure to dispose of them safely,” Dr. Bulat says. “You can talk to your pharmacist to find an authorized drug disposal site or take-back event near you.”Flushing of medications is not recommended due to the impact on the environment, but opioids are one exception. They have the potential to cause enough harm that flushing them is preferable to keeping them, if getting them to a proper disposal site isn’t feasible. (Tip: The 14th National Prescription Drug Take Back Day is Oct. 28, 2017. Find a disposal site near you.)
Learn more about opioid addiction and treatment at Henry Ford.
Dr. Elizabeth Bulat is an addiction medicine specialist who works with patients at Henry Ford Maplegrove Center in West Bloomfield.