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The Transition House, Inc.

FAQs: Prescription painkillers and opioid addiction

addiction to opioid medication and prescription painkillers - photo of prescription medication

Prescription painkillers are prescribed to patients who experience high levels of pain, typically associated with surgical procedures and with chronic pain. Because prescription painkillers are opioid medications, they are effective when it comes to reducing pain but should be taken with caution and under the supervision of a primary care physician due to their highly addictive nature.

While over 500,000 people struggle with heroin addiction in the United States, more than three times that many - 1.9 million - are addicted to opioid painkillers. According to the American Society on Addiction Medicine, in 2015 alone, more than 20,000 people died due to an overdose of prescription painkillers containing opioids. Compare this to just under 13,000 people who died due to a heroin overdose. Additionally, those who abuse opioid painkillers are almost 20 times more likely to begin using heroin.

In this blog, you’ll learn more about prescription painkillers containing opioids, how to avoid addiction, and what to do if you or a loved one is trying to recover from opioid addiction.

Which prescription painkillers contain opiates?

The following prescription painkillers are opioid medications:

  • Oxycodone (OxyConton, Percodan, Percocet)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet)
  • Diphenoxylate (Lomotil)
  • Morphine (Kadian, Avinza, MS Contin)
  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl (Duragesic)
  • Propoxyphene (Darvon)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Meperidine (Demerol)
  • Methadone

If you are taking one of the prescription painkillers listed above, you should be sure to take them only as prescribed and speak with your primary care physician before changing your prescribed dose. You should never increase your dosage without first speaking to your primary care physician.

Can I get addicted to prescription painkillers?

As a result of the way prescription painkillers containing opioids affect the brain, it is possible to become addicted to them, even with a prescription. Opioids work by attaching to opioid receptors in the brain which block feelings of pain. Additionally, because opioid receptors in the brain are contained in the brain’s reward center, using opioid medications causes a rush of dopamine - a neurotransmitter that elicits feelings of pleasure. This feeling of pleasure reinforces use. Over time, repeated rushes of dopamine due to drug use can cause addiction.

Even if you are prescribed painkillers containing opioids, you can still become addicted. When taken at doses higher than prescribed, opioid painkillers can mimic the side effects of heroin - a street opiate. Because of this risk, these highly addictive medications should only be taken as prescribed and never with other drugs or alcohol.

Find help for your loved one struggling with addiction. Download our free resources:

Download Addiction Resources for Families

What are the side effects of prescription painkillers containing opioids?

Some side effects of prescription painkiller abuse are:

  • Drowsiness
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Itching
  • Confusion
  • Slow heart rate
  • Profound respiratory depression
  • Increased risk of respiratory arrest which can cause organ injury
  • Coma
  • Death

How can I help someone who is addicted to prescription painkillers containing opioids?

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction to prescription painkillers, you should know that choosing recovery is possible. Begin by understanding what addiction is by reading An Introduction to Substance Abuse.

You might also find the following resources helpful:

Addiction is a serious disease and choosing recovery takes time. To find addiction treatment near you, check out our counseling centers where our caring staff of mental health professionals have been providing individual, family, couples, and groups behavioral therapy and substance abuse counseling for over 25 years.

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