Expert advice: What You Need to Know about Opioids

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Opioids are a commonly used form of pain relief after major surgery. But they can also cause a number of side effects, and older adults in particular may be at a higher risk.

"[Older people] have more surgeries which frequently require opioids for the management of postoperative pain. This population also suffers more frequently from chronic pain and other medical comorbidities. Opioids are often prescribed to treat chronic pain, and can sometimes be over-prescribed," says Daniel Knecht, M.D., M.B.A., VP of Health Strategy and Innovation at CVS Health.

It's important to understand the risk factors of taking opioids in order to protect yourself and your loved ones from misusing these drugs. Keep the following in mind before taking an opioid to make sure it's the right treatment for you.


Always talk to your doctor before starting an opioid prescription

It's important to talk to your doctor about any medications they prescribe for you. Your doctor is there to help make the best decisions for your health and well-being. According to Dr. Knecht, asking your doctor the following questions can help you decide if an opioid is the right medication for you:

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1. Is an opioid necessary to manage my pain?

Dr. Knecht says there are alternative drugs and methods for managing pain aside from taking opioids, like acetaminophen and NSAIDs, as well as non-pharmacological interventions like acupuncture, chiropractic care, physical therapy, and mindfulness. Talk to your doctor about these options first to help figure out the best treatment for your pain.

2. Is this the right dose and duration for managing my pain?

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for prescribing opioids is to start [patients] with the lowest possible dose and the shortest duration," says Dr. Knecht. Confirm with your doctor that he or she is following these guidelines when writing your prescription to make sure you're not being inappropriately prescribed.

3. How do I dispose of unused opioids?

Unused medications like opioids can end up in the wrong hands if they're not properly disposed of. That's why it's important to ask your doctor how to safely dispose of your unused opioid prescription if you don't end up taking all that is prescribed to you. You can also participate in the DEA's National Prescription Drug Take Back Day events, where you can return your unused prescriptions to an authorized collector in your area.

4. How will opioids interact with other medications I'm currently taking?

If you're prescribed an opioid, talk to your doctor about other medications you're taking, as they may interact with opioids. "[An opioid's] side effects are amplified when they're co-prescribed with benzodiazepines, which are a common class of anti-anxiety drugs," says Dr. Knecht. Opioids may also interact with sleep medication and antidepressants.

Learn the warning signs of opioid misuse

Knowing the signs of opioid misuse and dependence is important to help protect yourself and loved ones from developing a serious problem.

According to Dr. Knecht, the first red flag of addiction is signs of withdrawal when you stop taking an opioid, which include increased pain, goose bumps, nausea, sweating, and diarrhea. "Seeking to increase the dose or frequency of taking an opioid prescription is also a warning sign. There is also a feeling of euphoria that's associated with this drug class," he says.

If you experience, or think a loved one is experiencing, these signs of opioid misuse, the most important thing to do is seek help and remember you're not alone. "[Opioid addiction] is a very common issue and the outcomes are very good if people get evidence-based care to treat addictions," says Dr. Knecht.

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