Prescription Pain Relievers

Prescription pain relievers are drugs prescribed by a medical professional to reduce pain. They are also known as opioid analgesics, opioid pain relievers, or prescription painkillers. Common examples include OxyContin®, Vicodin®, codeine and fentanyl. Although there is a role for these drugs in medicine, they can also cause substantial harm, particularly if misused (taking your prescription in ways other than prescribed or taking someone else’s prescription). Misuse and overdose from prescription pain relievers is considered a national epidemic.

In 2011, there were almost 17,000 deaths related to prescription pain relievers. New York City has also experienced the impact of this public health crisis. From 2000 to 2013, rates of overdose death from prescription pain relievers increased 256% in New York City. In 2013, about 1 New Yorker died every other day from an opioid analgesic overdose. The majority of these deaths are entirely preventable.

What Are the Risks of Prescription Pain Relievers?

People often think that prescription pain relievers are safer than illicit drugs, but they can be just as dangerous.

  • In addition to helping pain, opioid analgesics can make a person feel “high.” This feeling can make it harder to control use.
  • They can cause drowsiness, constipation, dry mouth and nausea.
  • Prescription pain relievers can lead to a fatal overdose because they suppress breathing. An overdose is more likely when combined with alcohol or benzodiazepines (drugs such as Xanax®, Ativan® or Valium®). Some of these combinations are so powerful that a single dose can kill a new user.
  • They can slow reaction time, which can increase the risk of accidents.
  • Regular use can lead to withdrawal symptoms when stopping, such as anxiety, muscle and bone pain, diarrhea, vomiting or restless sleep. This can occur within as little as seven days of regular use.

What Are the Signs of a Problem?

  • Taking more than prescribed
  • Having trouble controlling use
  • Taking amounts that make you confused or sleepy

If you or someone you know has a problem with prescription pain relievers, help is available. Speak with a health care professional or call 988.

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