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What to Ask if You Are Prescribed an Opioid

People in pain can often find relief with non-drug approaches and our series on pain management continues to explore these options. In November, we covered acupuncture in our article, “Acupuncture: A Pill-Free Way to Manage Pain.” In December, we wrote about massage therapy in “Therapeutic Massage: A Pill-Free Option in Pain Management.” Future articles in Lifelines will explore other pain management options in more detail.

However, depending on the source of pain, for example, pain from cancer or immediately following major surgery, non-drug approaches may not be effective or practical.

If your health care provider believes a prescription opioid such as hydrocodone, oxycodone or codeine is the most effective way to manage your pain, it’s important to understand that these medications are highly addictive. In 2015, overdose deaths from prescription opioids killed more than 20,000 people in the U.S. alone.

As you should with any new medication, if your health care provider wants to prescribe an opioid, it’s important to ask questions before you get it filled.

Questions you should always ask include:

    1. Why do I need this medication? Ask if there are non-opioid options you could take instead.
    2. What if I have a history of addiction? Make sure your health care provider knows if you have had issues with drugs or alcohol and if you have a history of smoking. This could change your treatment plan.
    3. How long should I take this medication? Ask for the lowest effective dose in the smallest quantity so you don’t have leftover medication.
    4. How can I reduce the risk of side effects? Take your medication as prescribed and make sure you are aware of potential side effects such as excessive sleepiness or craving more of the medication. Alert your health care provider immediately if you experience them.
    5. What if I am taking other medications? You can reduce your risk for dangerous interactions by making sure your health care provider is aware of all the prescription and over-the-counter medications and supplements you take.
    6. Where should I keep my opioid medication? If you have children at home, including teenagers, store it where it cannot be seen or reached.
    7. What if I have unused opioid medication? Don’t keep it. Leftover opioids can be found and used by others. Ask your pharmacist how best to dispose of leftover medication – the answer may depend on the specific medication. Further information on safe drug disposal is available from the Food and Drug Administration at
  1. Should I have naloxone in my house? Naloxone can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Naloxone is available over-the-counter in many states and in all of Canada. Your health care provider can also prescribe naloxone if you want it in your home and live in a place where a script is required.

Write your questions down ahead of time and write down necessary information during your visit. If you think of something else after your appointment is over, don’t be afraid to call back. Most medical offices have staff on hand who can help if your health care provider is not available and you need answers right away. Your pharmacist can also be a valuable resource.

Don’t assume your health care provider will automatically tell you everything you should know about an opioid medication or any other treatment. Not asking questions can have serious consequences on your health and your life.

The LHSFNA’s Smart Medicine brochure includes a medication record to help you keep track of your prescription and over-the-counter drugs and supplements. Keep this record up to date and bring it with you when you see your health care provider. Visit our online Publications Catalogue to order this publication and other Fund materials that can help protect your health and safety.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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