Ask A Doc: Opioids

Jeff Krupinski, pharmacist with North Ottawa Community Health System, answers your questions about opioids.

What is an opioid?
An opioid is a category of prescription drug used to control pain.

Are there other kinds of pain medications?
There are three broad categories of pain medication. NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, like ibuprofen) work to block chemicals in the body that elicit pain. Opioids control pain by suppressing the nervous system. Topical pain medications can be used for some types of pain, especially muscle aches and strains.

Why would my doctor prescribe an opioid?
Some people cannot take NSAIDs due to allergies, drug interactions or a medical condition. Topical pain medications are sometimes not enough for severe or chronic pain. Opioids provide many options for pain control, from relatively mild to extraordinarily strong. In many cases, they are the best and only option.

Aren’t opioids addictive?
Opioids are an essential part of pain control when prescribed properly and taken as instructed. However, you can develop a physical dependence on opioids even if you do take them as instructed. Always take the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible amount of time.

Why are opioids dangerous?
Overdose is the biggest risk. Opioids work by suppressing the central nervous system. Someone who takes too much can suffocate to death because the drug stops his or her breathing. Anyone who takes opioids regularly should have Narcan in the house. Household residents should know how to use it in an emergency. Narcan can be administered in case of accidental overdose to immediately re-start the lungs.

How should I store opioids?
You should always keep opioids either on your person, or locked up. Do not leave them lying around where children or pets can get them.

How can I dispose of extra opioids?
Do not ever give opioids to someone for whom they were not prescribed. Sixty-nine percent of people who misuse opioids got them from a friend or relative. Many pharmacies will take back unused drugs. Find a nearby drug take-back location online at As a last resort, mix the drugs (uncrushed) with a bit of kitty litter, dirt, or used coffee grounds in a plastic bag. Then add a small amount of water and place the bag in the trash.

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