Using opioids safely

Have a medical procedure coming up and wondering what you need to know about opioids? You're not alone. Opioids are commonly prescribed to help relieve moderate to severe pain.

When used appropriately, opioids are safe and effective for managing pain. However, opioids are highly addictive. According to the Mayo Clinic, after just five days of taking prescription opioids, the chances that you'll become dependent long-term rise significantly.

Before you begin taking opioids, it's important to have a conversation with your doctor. Here are a few questions to help you get started:

How can I avoid becoming addicted?

If used as prescribed by your doctor, opioids can be safe for the treatment of pain. However, long-term use of opioids requires careful monitoring by a doctor.

Communicate with your doctor and discuss the risks and benefits of long-term use. Make sure to tell them about any other drugs you're taking. They'll establish a treatment plan with you and may ask you to sign an opioid therapy agreement, which clearly states your responsibilities while using the medication.

You should also have regular checkups with your doctor to evaluate how the medication is working for you and how to minimize withdrawal when you stop using it.

Can I take opioids with other medications?

Do not mix opioids with alcohol or other drugs. Taking opioids with other substances, such as benzodiazepines or alcohol, can greatly increase the risk of respiratory depression (slow breathing).

Make sure your doctors know about all the medications you're taking, as you may receive prescriptions from several doctors. It's also helpful to fill all your prescriptions at a single pharmacy or pharmacy chain, so the pharmacist can monitor your medications and catch any potential unsafe interactions.

See more questions to ask your doctor in our opioid conversation guide

Safe storage & disposal of medications

Did you know that 70% of accidental use or intentional misuse begins in our own medicine cabinets? Store your medications in a safe, cool, locked place that is out of reach of family, children, visitors and pets. 

Besides locking up your medications, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recommends that you safely dispose of any unwanted or expired drugs. Throwing medications into the garbage or flushing them down the toilet pose potential health and safety hazards for the community and the environment. To be sure your unused medications are disposed of properly, take them to a medication disposal location or a drug take-back event.

Search using your ZIP code on the DEA website, or ask your local pharmacist.

National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day

The DEA collects unused and expired prescription medications for safe disposal on National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, once in the spring and once in the fall.

If no medication take-back programs or DEA-authorized collectors are available in your area, you can also follow these simple steps to dispose of most medications in your household trash:

  1. Mix medications (do not crush tablets or capsules) with an unpalatable substance such as dirt, kitty litter or used coffee grounds.
  2. Place the mixture in a container such as a sealed plastic bag.
  3. Throw the container in your household trash.
  4. Scratch out all personal information on the prescription label of your empty pill bottle or empty medication packaging to make it unreadable, then dispose of the container.