After decades of opioids being overprescribed and misused, our nation is experiencing an opioid crisis. And chances are, it affects someone you know and your community.

Opioids are a type of narcotic pain medicine (or pain reliever) that are associated with a higher risk of addiction than your average pain medicine.

Most people who take opioids for a short time, as prescribed by their doctor, find that the medicine reduces their pain effectively – and safely. However, it's important to be aware of the serious risks and side effects that may come with taking opioids, including dependence and addiction. It’s also helpful to know how to safely store and dispose of opioids, as well as the signs of substance use disorders and addiction, so you can better ensure your safety when taking prescribed opioids.

Why Doctors Prescribe Opioids

Doctors often prescribe opioids for pain related to injuries, surgeries, toothaches or other procedures. Opioids are also used to treat pain for chronic conditions.

Opioids are safest when used for three days or fewer to manage severe pain, such as after having surgery or breaking a bone.

You can talk to your doctor about the right dosage and length of time to take opioids as you recover.

Learn more about common opioids that are prescribed for pain and questions to ask if your doctor prescribes you opioids.

Opioid Alternatives to Manage Your Pain

Did you know there are ways to manage your pain besides taking opioids? Some alternatives include taking less strong opioid medicines or receiving body therapy, such as massages.

If you're interested in opioid alternatives, talk to your doctor.

Pain Treatment Alternatives to Opioids

Alternative treatments can be used with or in place of some opioids, depending on the type of pain you have. Your doctor can help you figure out if any of these treatments are right for you.

  • Cryotherapy (sometimes called cold therapy) involves placing ice or cold packs on an injured part of the body. The cold temperature causes blood vessels to narrow and blood flow to decrease, helping with pain and inflammation.
  • Acupuncture Acupuncture is one of the oldest types of pain management. Thin needles are inserted to various depths at specific places on the body. This relieves pain by releasing endorphins, which are the body’s pain-killing chemicals. Acupuncture can also positively affect serotonin, the brain chemicals that control your mood.
  • Medical massage can relax painful muscles, tendons and joints, and relieve stress and anxiety.
  • Aromatherapy is the applying or inhaling of essential oils. The oils’ aromas can stimulate areas of your brain that are linked to emotions and behaviors. This can be a safe addition to pain treatment without negative effects.

How to Safely Store and Dispose of Opioids

Safely storing opioids helps you to take your opioids as prescribed and makes sure they are not taken by others.

To safely store your opioids:

  • Organize: Try arranging your opioids by when you need to take them. Keep stronger medicines in a separate area or section.
  • Avoid mix-ups: Don’t mix different medicines in the same bottle.
  • Treat opioids like other valuables: Keep the lids on tight and the bottles out of sight, such as in a cabinet or drawer, especially when you have visitors over.
  • Childproof your medicine cabinet: If you have small children or pets, store your opioids out of their reach.

When you have leftover or expired opioids, don't take them, give them to others or sell them. Remove unused or expired opioids from your home as soon as possible. What's safe for you could be harmful for others.

Ways to Dispose of Opioids

Some medicines can be thrown into your household trash, but not opioids. Here are three options - ranked from best to worst - to get rid of unused opioids.

  • Check the instructions
    Some opioids, such as sprays and lozenges, come with directions about how to get rid of them.
  • Medicine take-backs
    A medicine take-back is a certain time or safe place where you can drop off your leftover opioids. The most common kind of take-back is a medicine drop location. To find one in your area:
        a) Contact your pharmacy and ask if it will accept leftover opioids.
        b) Find a permanent medicine drop in your area.
  •     c) You can search for permanent collection sites or take-back events in your county (in NC) at Operation Medicine Drop.
  • Flush it
    If there's no medicine take-back option, some opioids can be flushed down the toilet. Do not place used or leftover opioids in the trash where children or pets can find them. A fentanyl patch is a type of opioid that you stick on your body for a few days at a time. Fentanyl patches should always be flushed down the toilet after they’re used. Fold the patch in half so the sticky sides meet and then flush it.

Opioid Complications and Side Effects

Some common side effects of taking opioids as prescribed, or in greater amounts, include:

  • Drowsiness, dizziness and confusion
  • Skin rash and itching
  • Stomach pain, constipation, nausea and vomiting
  • Blurred vision
  • Shortness of breath

If you experience any of these symptoms, contact your doctor as soon as possible. If you experience shortness of breath, call 911 immediately, as this could be a possible emergency.

As you take opioids more often or for a longer period of time, your body will get used to them, making them less effective when you need pain relief.

If you overuse or misuse an opioid and then stop taking it, you can go through withdrawal.
Withdrawal symptoms can be mental and physical, including:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Sleep problems
  • Anxiety

While opioid withdrawal symptoms can be uncomfortable, they're not life-threatening.

The Risk of Substance Use and Addiction with Opioids

About 1 in 10 Americans over the age of 12 suffers from addiction. And while you may not understand why a person is relying so heavily on substances, the truth is that addiction is a mental illness that can affect anyone.

For most people, substance use or addiction to opioids usually starts as a way to treat pain or a health condition – until they feel like the opioid is something they can't live without.

Substance Use Disorders

A substance use disorder is when the use of substances, including opioids, leads to health issues or problems at home, work or school. There are several ways opioids can be misused, including:

  • Taking opioids in a way that was not prescribed, such as taking too many pills at one time or combining pills with alcohol or other substances
  • Taking someone else's opioids – even if you're doing so to ease pain
  • Taking opioids just to feel good or get high

Opioid Addiction

Addiction is the most severe form of a substance use disorder. It's a brain disorder and its signs include obsessive cravings and taking large amounts of medicines, such as opioids.

Opioids are especially addictive because they affect the powerful reward centers in the brain, which trigger a desire to continue taking the substance. Once addicted, people often continue using opioids, even when it damages their relationships and finances.

Common signs of addiction include:

  • Taking opioids in larger amounts than prescribed
  • Taking opioids for a longer time than the doctor prescribed
  • Unsuccessful efforts to control opioid use
  • Extra time spent getting, using or recovering from opioids
  • Continued opioid use, despite related personal problems
  • Withdrawal from social, work or leisure activities

Prevent addiction by:

  • Following directions for your opioids as explained on the label or by your pharmacist or doctor
  • Storing and disposing of opioids safely
  • Asking your pharmacist or doctor about any interactions that your opioids may have with other medicines you're taking or with alcohol
  • Never starting, stopping or changing your dosage without first discussing it with your doctor
  • Never using another person’s opioids and never sharing your opioids with others

Help is Available

If you or a loved one needs assistance, Atrium Health's Behavioral Health Help Line is available 24/7 at 704-444-2400.

If your loved one suffers from substance use disorder or addiction, here are some resources that may help, including some encouraging testimonials. Learn More.

Read more about how Atrium Health is addressing the national opioid crisis.

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