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Opioid Dependence


What is opioid dependence?

Opioids are medicines, such as morphine and codeine, used to treat pain. Dependence happens after you have used opioids regularly for a long period of time. Dependence means that your body gets used to how much medicine you take. Dependence is not the same as addiction. Addiction means that a person uses opioids to get high instead of using them to control pain.

What are the signs and symptoms of opioid dependence?

  • You need more of the opioid to get the same amount of pain relief as you did when you first started taking it.
  • You have tried to use less opioid medicine but are not able to.
  • You have withdrawal symptoms when you take less of the opioid.

How is opioid dependence diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will do a physical exam. He or she will ask you questions about your symptoms and your use of opioids. He or she will also ask about your current and past use of other drugs and any family history of drug abuse.

How is opioid dependence treated?

You may be treated in a hospital or you may be treated as an outpatient. During detoxification (detox), healthcare providers will slowly decrease your dose of the opioid medicine you are dependent on. They may use another opioid medicine such as methadone to decrease symptoms of withdrawal. You may need to take this or another medicine for some time. Your healthcare provider will also replace the opioid with another pain medicine that is less likely to cause dependence. He or she may also suggest that you receive counseling and social support during treatment.

What are the risks of opioid dependence?

There is a risk of overdose during early treatment with methadone. You may become dependent on the medicines used to treat opioid dependence. Without treatment, you may develop other health problems or become addicted to opioids. Your risk of abusing alcohol and other drugs increases. You may also develop risky behaviors that can lead to an overdose, violence, and suicidal thoughts.

What do I need to know about opioid safety?

  • Do not suddenly stop taking opioid pain medicine. If you have been taking opioid pain medicine for longer than 2 weeks, a sudden stop may cause dangerous side effects. If you need to continue taking an opioid, do not suddenly stop taking it. Work with your healthcare provider to decrease your dose slowly if that is the goal.
  • Take your medicine exactly as directed. Do not take more of the recommended amount of opioids each time you take it. Do not take opioids more often than recommended. If you use a pain patch, be sure to remove the old patch before you place a new one.
  • Do not take opioids that belong to someone else. The amount of opioids that person takes may not be right for you.
  • Do not mix opioids with alcohol, sleeping pills, or street drugs. The combination of these substances can cause an overdose.
  • Learn about the signs of an overdose so you know how to respond. Tell others about these signs so they will know what to do if needed. Talk to your healthcare provider about naloxone. In some states, you may be able to keep naloxone at home in case of an overdose. Your family and friends can also be trained on how to give it to you if needed.
  • Keep opioids out of the reach of children. Store opioids in a locked cabinet or in a location that children cannot get to. Ask your healthcare provider how to dispose of any unused opioid medicines.
  • Follow instructions for what to do with medicine you do not use. Your healthcare provider will give you instructions for how to dispose of opioid pain medicine safely. This helps make sure no one else takes the medicine.

Call 911 if:

  • You have a seizure.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You feel lightheaded or faint.
  • You have a fast, slow, or irregular heartbeat.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • Your speech is slurred.
  • You have difficulty staying awake.
  • You have nausea and are vomiting, or you cannot stop vomiting.
  • You are easily upset or cry easily.
  • You have poor balance.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

Learn more about Opioid Dependence

Associated drugs

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.