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He was injured a year ago and I'm concerned that he's still taking pain medication...
Should I be worried?

Be prepared for an opioid emergency

The Facts

Prescription opioids are a class of powerful medications, prescribed by a healthcare provider to treat pain. While used for legitimate medical needs — including short- or sometimes long-term pain control, cough suppression, or to control severe diarrhea — prescription opioids are also sometimes used inappropriately for non-medical use.

In addition to prescribed opioids, there are also illegal opioid formulations. Although all formulations pose the risk for dependence or abuse, they do so to different degrees. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) schedules opioids according to their acceptable medical use and potential for abuse or dependency.

It’s important to understand that prescription opioids can be helpful to manage chronic pain, but they come with risks even when used appropriately. When used too frequently, inappropriately, or without a prescription, they can cause serious life-threatening effects.

Recognizing which medicines are opioids is an important step to prevent opioid overuse emergencies! Frequently prescribed and common opioids include:
Generic NameTrade Names*
FentanylActiq®, Duragesic®, Fentora®, Abstral®, Onsolis®
HydrocodoneHysingla® ER, Zohydro® ER
Hydrocodone/AcetaminophenLorcet®, Lortab®, Norco®, Vicodin®
HydromorphoneDilaudid®, Exalgo®
MethadoneDolophine®, Methadose
MorphineKadian®, MS Contin®, Morphabond
OxycodoneOxyContin®, Oxaydo®
Oxycodone and AcetaminophenPercocet®, Roxicet®
See a list of brand and generic opioids available in the U.S.

*All trademarks are property of their respective owners.


Opioids attach to receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and gut. This produces a range of effects that include the release of chemical messengers to the brain, resulting in pain relief. In addition to relieving pain, opioids can also cause life-threatening side effects, which include:

These effects can start as quickly as 5 to 10 minutes after taking an opioid and, depending on whether opioids are taken by mouth, via a skin patch, or by injection, can peak within 30 minutes to an hour.

Did you know that ~83% of prescription opioid-related deaths are unintended/accidental?

pie chart showing 83%


Opioids are commonly prescribed for acute, transient (i.e., short-term) injuries. However, they are also often prescribed for patients suffering from chronic, long-term pain, with increased dose or frequency over time. Others may have borrowed an opioid prescription from a friend or family member to self-treat their pain. Although many patients find themselves relying on opioid medications for pain relief, some grow dependent on them even though their underlying pain has gone away.

It is important to note that the use of opioids without a prescription is considered “illicit use,” and may include “street drugs” like heroin, fentanyl, and carfentanil, all of which are significantly more potent than prescription-grade agents. Help is available for people who believe that they are dependent on opioids. Visit the resource section of this website to learn more.

In 2019, ~153 million prescriptions were written and filled for opioids.


The World Health Organization (WHO) states that “people dependent on opioids are most likely to suffer an overdose.” This includes people who use prescription opioids, people who use higher doses of prescription opioids, and people who use opioids in combination with certain other drugs. However, any household that has opioids may be at risk. Knowing the risks and who’s at risk, along with the steps to take in the event of an emergency, may mean the difference between life and death.

Access the WHO Information Sheet on Opioid Overdose to learn more about risk, prvention, and WHO recommendations.
Within 1 month of daily use, opioids can start to change the ability of the brain to function normally.


There are many reasons for opioid overdose emergencies and most often, they are accidental and unintentional. In fact, opioid overdose emergencies can even occur when opioids are used as directed.

Those at highest risk take high doses; consume certain other sedating medications or alcohol; have a history of substance abuse; and have children, other family, friends, and loved ones who have access to unlocked or unsecured prescription opioids.

For Example:

  • Do you have a senior partner (65+) who is taking multiple medications, including sedatives or muscle relaxants, that can interact with opioids?
  • Has a loved one recently served time in prison and gone through forced treatment withdrawal?
  • Do you have children with ready access to the medicine cabinet?
  • Do you have a sibling with a mental health disorder, such as depression or anxiety?

The bottom line is that anyone who uses opioids for pain control or for recreational purposes is at risk for an opioid emergency.

The likeliness of fatal overdose in children under 10 is more than doubled (~2.5 times) when an opioid is in their home.

Be aware, Be prepared

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