What are prescription opioids?
Opioid medications are a type of painkiller. Some are sold over the counter (such as Tylenol No. 1) and others are prescribed by a doctor or dentist. Examples of prescribed opioids include codeine (in Tylenol No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4), oxycodone (in Percocet and OxyNEO, which replaced OxyContin), morphine, hydromorphone (Dilaudid) and fentanyl.
Opioids are depressant drugs. This means they slow down the part of the brain that controls breathing. It’s dangerous to take opioids while taking other depressants, such as alcohol, anxiety medication, sleeping pills or other medications that may make you drowsy, including over-the-counter medicine such as Gravol and Benadryl.
Why are opioids prescribed?
Opioid medications can be effective to manage pain when used as prescribed. Your doctor may prescribe them if you are in a lot of pain after surgery or an accident, or your dentist may prescribe them after dental surgery.
You may develop a tolerance to opioids
If you use opioids to manage pain, you may develop tolerance. This means you may need to use more to get the same effect. If you stop taking the drug for a few days, your tolerance will change. If you then start taking the same dose that you took before you stopped, your risk of overdose will go up.
Opioids can cause dependence
If you take opioids for more than a week, you may become dependent on them. This is not the same as being addicted. It means that if you stop using opioids suddenly, you may have very uncomfortable, though not life-threatening, withdrawal symptoms. These may include:
- chills, shivering
- restlessness and/or extreme restless leg syndrome
- clammy or prickly skin (goosebumps)
- nausea, severe cramping and/or diarrhea
- poor sleep
- uneasiness, agitation, severe anxiety.
How do I know if I have an opioid addiction?
When a person is addicted to opioid medication they have both physical and psychological dependence. Physical dependence means your body reacts to the absence of the drug. Psychological dependence means the drug is at the centre of your thoughts and feelings. You may crave the drug, and you may have to use more and more of it just to feel normal. You may want to stop, but can’t.
Risk factors for opioid problems
Certain factors make people more likely to develop a problem with opioid use, such as:
- a history of trauma or abuse
- having other illnesses or chronic pain
- using other medications.
Those who are at greater risk include:
- older adults
- people with a personal or family history of mental health problems
- people with a personal or family history of addiction
- people who are homeless, have disabilities, or are living in poverty; First Nations people and others who experience social exclusion.
How to reduce your risk of opioid problems
- Only take medications that are prescribed for you, with your doctor’s or dentist’s supervision.
- If you are prescribed opioids for pain, talk to your doctor, dentist or pharmacist about the benefits and risks.
- Don’t take opioids with other depressant drugs, such as alcohol, anxiety or sleeping pills, Gravol or Benadryl. If you have to do so, consult your health care provider.
- Return any unused medication to your pharmacist.
- Do not use another person’s medications
Copyright © 2016 Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
Where can I find help, treatment and support for taking opioids?
Treatment and support are available for people living with drug use problems and addictions:
Treatment from CAMH
Help for Families from CAMH
Ontario Drug and Alcohol Helpline (open 24/7 for treatment anywhere in Ontario)
Kids Help Phone at 1 800 668-6868
Where can I find more resources from CAMH related to opioids?
Do You Know... Prescription Opioids (PDF)
Best Advice for people taking opioid medication by Dr. Mike Evans (video)
About Percs, Oxys, and other Pain Pills for youth (PDF)
Do you know…heroin (PDF)
Do You Know. . . Methadone (PDF)
Youth and Prescription painkillers: What parents need to know (PDF)
Addictions 101 (online tutorial) Please Note: Your pop-up blocker must be turned off to view this tutorial
Addiction: An Information Guide (PDF)
How to use them safely
What is opioid addiction?
addiction: Getting help
Talk: Street Methadone
Straight talk: Street Fentanyl
you need to know about fentanyl
What you and your friends need to know
SHEET Prescription opioids, including fentanyl: What educators need to know
SHEET Prescription opioids, including fentanyl: What parents and Caregivers
need to know
opioid overdose: Here’s what you need to know
Maintenance Treatment: the facts
Saves Lives: Addiction Counsellors and
Methadone Maintenance Treatment
Saves Lives: Health Care
Professionals and Methadone Maintenance
Saves Lives: Prescription Painkillers and Methadone Maintenance Treatment
the Choice, Making It Work Handbook on Treatment For Opioid Addiction
Strengthening your voice: Strengthening Your Voice is a day-long training
designed to prepare people with lived experience of problematic use of opioids
and/or family members of those with problematic use to share their personal
Other useful resources
Portico Network Opioid Resource Hub
For links to many helpful resources about opioids, see the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care’s Ontario’s Narcotic Strategy home page.