America has a painkiller problem. The overprescription of highly addictive opioid pain pills like Oxycontin and Percocet is leading to widespread abuse of the drugs. In fact, deaths from prescription painkiller overdoses have tripled in the last 10 years. As the Food and Drug Administration scrambles to address the abuse issue—by approving drugs family members can use to treat an overdose and formulas that discourage abuse via snorting or injection—it's worth giving pain pills a second thought.

Don’t accept a script for a painkiller without getting the following questions answered, advises Deborah Dowell, MD, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Is this a narcotic? If so, can I start with something milder?”

Physicians may assume that you want a strong, fast fix, Dr. Dowell says. But this query lets your MD know that you’d be open to a more moderate approach. She may start you with over-the-counter drugs or a nonnarcotic (like prescription-strength ibuprofen), physical therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, which is very effective. Ultimately, it’s your body.

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“How long do I need to be on this treatment, and what happens when I stop?”

“Some doctors prescribe more pills than a patient actually needs in an attempt to save you multiple follow-up appointments for refills,” says Dr. Dowell. So find out the exact number of days you should be on them. Also ask whether, once your pain subsides, you need to slowly decrease your dosage to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

“Will this medication interact with any other pills or supplements I’m taking?”

To be extra safe, ask this of both your doctor and pharmacist, who will have records of all your current prescriptions. If you have changed drugstores or started taking any OTC meds, update the pharmacist. Painkillers can cause dangerous interactions with everything from sleep aids to OTC cold products.

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