What are opioid medications?

Opioid medications are a type of pain relief, and are stronger than pain medications you can buy over the counter. They need to be prescribed by a doctor before they can be used.

What are they used for?

Opioids can be used for a number of different types of pain. They are commonly used long term by cancer sufferers to relieve pain.

The short term use of opioids is usually for one of the following conditions:

  • Surgery

  • A major dental procedure

  • A serious injury, such as a broken bone or other injury from a car accident

Not all people will need opioids in this situation, and your doctor will decide whether you need them and weigh up the risks and benefits. This article will focus on the short term use of opioids.

Are opioids safe?

When used properly and safely, opioids are an effective pain relief for severe pain. They are effective when used for a short period of time (ie: a few days to a few weeks), as a method to assist you to get back to regular activities and work.

However, opioids can be dangerous when they are used incorrectly. There is a risk of addiction if they are used when you don’t really need them, and a risk of overdose or even death if too many are taken at once. Hence it is important to only use these medications as your doctor advises and not let people other than the person they have been prescribed to use them.

What are common opioid medications?

There are a few opioid medications that you may be prescribed for short term relief of severe pain, including oxycodone, codeine and tramadol. These usually come as tablets, but are available in other forms for special cases.

Should I take other pain medications as well as opioids?

Always discuss the use of other medications with your doctor, including paracetamol or NSAIDs (ie: nurofen). This is because some opioid medications already have paracetamol or an NSAID included as a combination which could cause you to take higher than recommended doses of these medications.

What side effects do they cause?

Opioids can cause bothersome side effects, but can also cause dangerous side effects.

Dangerous side effects

If you have taken too much of an opioid medication or think someone else has, call for an ambulance immediately. This may have happened if a person:

  • Can’t seem to wake up or is very drowsy

  • Becomes very confused

  • Is breathing slowly or stops breathing

  • Passes out or has a seizure

  • Has trouble urinating

Overdosing can happen by accident. There is a drug available to reverse the effects of opiods, which can be given by emergency workers. It is important to ring for an ambulance immediately if you are concerned about the possibility of opioid overdose.

Bothersome side effects

  • Constipation (be sure to drink plenty of water to try to relieve this, and if it persists discuss with your doctor)

  • Nausea, vomiting, itchiness (if you experience these, please discuss with your doctor as they may be able to switch you to a different medication)

  • Dry mouth

  • Feeling dizzy, sleepy or having trouble thinking clearly

  • Vision problems

  • Feeling clumsy or falling down

If you suddenly stop taking opioid medications after using them for a few days, you may experience ‘withdrawal’ symptoms, including stomachache, dizziness or diarrhoea. If you have been taking opiates for longer than a few days, please discuss this  with your doctor prior to ceasing them.

How should I use opioids to safely treat my pain?

It is important to be careful when taking opioid medications.

  • Only take what has been prescribed, and only take medications that have been prescribed to you. Do not share your medication ANYONE else.

  • Talk to your doctor or nurse if you think that opioids are not controlling your pain, do not adjust the dose yourself.

  • Do no drink alcohol when you are taking opiods

  • Do not take other medications that make you sleepy or drowsy, unless your doctor has told you otherwise

  • Do not drive a car, use dangerous machinery, or do other risky activities when taking opioids, as they can cause you to become drowsy or not think clearly.

  • Store your opioids in a safe place such as a locked cabinet or cupboard. This stops children or teenagers accessing them.

  • When your pain gets better, ask your doctor or nurse how to properly dispose of your medications. Do not throw them in a regular trash bin.

  • Be sure that your doctor knows all your medications prior to prescribing opioids. This helps to ensure there are no interactions between your medications.

  • If you have a history of drug abuse or misuse, discuss this with your doctor. They may be able to refer you to a pain specialist to help manage your pain without opioid medications.

Should I worry about addiction?

In some cases, the use of opioid medications can lead to ‘abuse’ (taking the medications differently to what the doctor has directed) or ‘addiction’ (being unable to control the use of your medications, including taking more than directed).

The risk of addiction to opioids is higher if you have a history of drug or alcohol abuse. The use of opioids for short term pain rarely causes addiction, particularly when you follow your doctor’s instructions.


Crowly K, Martin KA 2017, Patient Education: Opioids for the short term treatment of pain (The Basics), UpToDate, retrieved online 29/12/17, retrieved from < https://www-uptodate-com.proxy.library.adelaide.edu.au/contents/opioids-for-short-term-treatment-of-pain-the-basics?search=opioid&source=search_result&selectedTitle=1~150&usage_type=default&display_rank=1 >

Turn The Tide Rx, date unknown, About Opioids, Turn The Tide Rx, retrieved online 29/12/17, retrieved from < https://turnthetiderx.org/for-patients/ >

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