How Can I Use Opiates Safely
Opioids are generally safe when taken as prescribed, but misuse or long-term use can lead to dependence, addiction, or overdose

Although all medications should be taken with caution, extra caution should be used when taking opiates and opioids. Opioids are generally safe when taken as prescribed for a short period of time. However, misuse or long-term use can lead to opioid dependence, addiction, and life-threatening overdose.

Here are 10 tips for safe prescription opioid use.

10 tips for using opioids safely

To avoid side effects and prevent addiction or dependence, opioids should be used for only 5 days or less for acute pain and under medical supervision for chronic pain. Tips for taking opiates or opioids safely include the following:

  1. Take the medication exactly as prescribed by your physician.
  2. Do not take extra doses.
  3. Do not break, chew, crush, or dissolve the pills.
  4. Store the opioids away from the reach of children.
  5. Dispose of unused medications properly.
  6. Avoid alcohol or other street drugs while on opioids.
  7. Practice caution when driving or operating machinery.
  8. Be aware that alcohol abuse may make you more susceptible to misusing opioids.
  9. Recognize the side effects associated with the opioid you are taking.
  10. Monitor your symptoms and contact your doctor if you experience any side effects.

What are opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs, often referred to as narcotics, that are used to relieve pain. These medications are typically prescribed for chronic and acute pain caused by injury, surgery, and cancer. Milder forms of the drug may be used for arthritis or low back pain.

Opioids work by blocking pain signals in the brain. In addition to controlling pain, opioids can have an addicting effect due to their ability to produce a feeling of euphoria or relaxation.

What are different types of opioids?

Some of the most common opioids include:

Opioids can be either short-acting or long-acting:

  • Short-acting: Prescribed for pain that lasts only a few days.
    • Takes 15-30 minutes to start working
    • Effect lasting for 3-4 hours
    • Examples include acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Long-acting: Often called rescue medication and used for severe pain.
    • Takes a little longer to work
    • Provides steady pain relief for 8-12 hours

Depending on the need, opioids can be administered in the following ways:

  • Oral pill or liquid
  • Nasal spray
  • Skin patch
  • Dissolvable pills under the tongue
  • Suppository
  • Intravenous (shot into a vein)
  • Intramuscular (shot into a muscle)
  • Epidural (shot into the space surrounding the spinal cord)
  • Implanted pump


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What are the risks of long-term opioid use?

Regular and long-term use of prescription opioids can increase tolerance and dependence, requiring higher and more frequent doses. In some cases, this can even lead to addiction or opioid use disorder.

Other potential medical risks include the following:

What are the signs of opioid overdose?

Opioids can have potentially serious risks. It is estimated that about 8%-12% of people taking opioids develop an opioid dependence disorder.

Some signs of overdose include the following

  • Inability to stay awake or having difficulty waking from sleep
  • Excessive drowsiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Stumbling while walking
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Trouble breathing, including slow and shallow breathing
  • Limpness, lifelessness
  • Pale or clammy skin
  • Blue fingernails or lips
  • Slow heartbeat to an extent leading to death
  • Urinary retention (unable to pass urine despite feeling pressure)

How can I safely store and dispose of opioids?

Tips for storing and disposing of opioid medications include the following:

  • Store all medications in a safe place away from the reach of children.
  • Dispose of your unused medicine properly by:
    • Finding a local drug take-back program
    • Finding a pharmacy mail-back program
    • In some cases, flushing them down the toilet
  • Do not share your prescribed opioid medicines with others (the dose considered safe for you might lead to an overdose in someone else)

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Medically Reviewed on 5/18/2022
Image Source: iStock Image

Johns Hopkins Medicine. Opioid Addiction.

US Food & Drug Administration. Opioid Medications.

Von Korff M, Kolodny A, Deyo RA, Chou R. Long-term opioid therapy reconsidered. Ann Intern Med. 2011;155(5):325-328.

American Society of Anesthesiologists. What Are Opioids?