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Taking Prescription Opioid Pain Medicines Safely

Opioids are very good at controlling pain, but there are risks to taking these medicines. They can cause serious side effects and lead to dependence, addiction, and overdose. The misuse of these medicines has contributed to the crisis in America. Hundreds of people die from opioid overdoses every day, and millions are fighting addiction.

If you've been prescribed a medicine that contains an opioid, follow this opioid safety checklist. Share this information with the parent or trusted caregiver who will be helping you take, store, and get rid of the medicine.

Opioid Safety Checklist

  • Take the opioid medicine exactly as prescribed. Don't take more of the medicine than prescribed. Don't take the medicine more often than prescribed.
  • Don't take any other medicines unless you check with your health care provider or pharmacist first.
  • Do not drink alcohol while taking the opioid medicine. It can lead to serious medical problems, even death.
  • Do not drive, ride a bike, or operate machinery while taking the medicine because the medicine can make you sleepy.
  • Do not take opioid medicine if you are or may be pregnant. It can cause serious problems in a baby.
  • Do not share your medicines with anyone.
  • Have a parent or trusted caregiver:
    • Store the opioids in a locked cabinet away from children, friends, and visitors.
    • Keep track of how much medicine is in the container so you know if someone else is taking the medicine.
    • Safely dispose of any leftover opioids as soon as you no longer need them.

What Opioid Pain Medicines Are Prescribed for Kids and Teens?

Opioid pain medicines prescribed for children and teens include:

  • hydrocodone with acetaminophen liquid (Hycet®) and pills (Vicodin® and Lortab®)
  • oxycodone with acetaminophen liquid (Roxicet®) and pills (Percocet®)
  • hydromorphone liquid and pills (Dilaudid®)
  • morphine liquid and pills
  • oxycodone liquid and pills
  • others — your health care provider may prescribe an opioid pain medicine that is not on this list

What Are the Risks of Opioid Pain Medicines?

If you take an opioid pain medicine for a few days, you might notice side effects like sleepiness, constipation, itching, and stomach upset. When opioids are taken as directed, these side effects may be annoying, but are not dangerous.

Taking opioids for longer brings other risks, including:

  • developing a tolerance (needing more opioid for the same pain relief)
  • physical dependence (having symptoms of withdrawal when the opioid is stopped)
  • addiction (when someone has very strong cravings and will continue to take an opioid even when it causes problems with health, relationships, and money)

Taking too much of an opioid or mixing it with other drugs and/or alcohol can lead to overdose and death.

Could I Become Addicted to Opioids?

Most kids and teens who take opioids for a short time as instructed by a health care provider do not get addicted. For example, a teen who has surgery or a broken bone and takes an opioid as directed is very unlikely to become addicted. But taking more of the medicine or taking it for longer than prescribed increases your chances of becoming addicted.

Sharing this medicine with others puts them at risk for addiction or overdose. Do not share your medicine with anyone.

What Happens When Someone Is Addicted?

Someone addicted to opioids will want to get more when the prescription runs out. This can lead to inappropriate or risky behavior, such as lying to a health care provider to get a new prescription, buying opioids from a friend, stealing opioids from friends or family, or buying and using street drugs (such as heroin).

Why Do We Need to Lock Up the Opioids?

Sometimes people take opioids prescribed for someone else. For example, a teen might take a younger sibling's medicine or someone might take a friend's opioid to manage pain, anxiety, or sleep problems. They might think that prescription opioid medicines are safer than street drugs because health care providers prescribe them.

But prescription opioids can lead to severe side effects, dependence, addiction, and overdose. Keeping the opioids locked up will help make sure that only person they were prescribed for takes them.

How Do We Safely Dispose of Unused Medicine?

As soon as you're done taking the medicine, your parent or caregiver should get rid of any unused medicine. Ask your health care provider or pharmacist how to get rid of extra medicine safely. They may recommend that you flush the medicine, mix it with coffee grounds and then throw it away, or take it to a drug take-back program. The FDA has more information.

How Can People Get Help for a Substance Abuse Problem?

Call SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). This free and confidential service is available in English and Spanish.

Date reviewed: January 2018