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Opioids are strong pain medicines. They can be taken by mouth, as an injection (shot), through a patch, or in a vein (IV). There are different types of opioids, and some are stronger than others. Common opioids include hydrocodone (Vicodin®), morphine, hydromorphone (Dilaudid®), oxycodone, fentanyl, and methadone.
Pain management is an important part of patient care, and medicine can be a helpful tool. However, the use and misuse of opioids has led to an opioid crisis in the United States and other countries.
If your doctor prescribes an opioid for your child, be sure to follow all instructions to manage pain safely and effectively.
Your child might have pain from surgery, cancer or other disease, or their medical treatment. Doctors prescribe opioids if:
Your child’s pain is moderate to severe, and other medicines do not control it
Your child cannot take other pain medicines at that time
Opioids do not completely relieve pain. Opioids do not work for all types of pain. Your doctor may prescribe other medicine or other ways of handling pain. Read more about types of pain and pain management.
Opioids can cause many different side effects. Some side effects are more common than others.
Addiction is when you want to use a medicine in ways other than how the doctor prescribed it. For example, you might take it to feel “high,” instead of to control pain. Addiction can also happen with street drugs or other substances.
Opioids work by blocking pain signals sent from the body to the brain. They also cause the release of dopamine, which can make people “feel good” and produce a “high.” The user may want to repeat the experience. This desire may lead people to take opioids for non-medical reasons.
Some people misuse opioid medicines. Patients who take opioid medicines before age 18 are more likely to become addicted later. So, addiction is a possible risk of taking opioid medicines.
Dependence is when your body gets used to a medicine or other substance. Opioids are a type of drug that the body gets used to having.
It is normal to get used to opioids if you take them for more than a few days. This means your child’s body might feel like it needs opioids after a short time. The dose that worked before might not work as well.
Dependence is different from addiction. Addiction is in a person’s mind and emotions as well as their physical body.
If your child does take opioid medicines, your care team will help lower the dose safely when it is time.
Opioids can be harmful to an unborn baby. If a woman becomes pregnant while taking opioids, the baby could be born dependent on opioids. The baby might also have health problems.
Take steps to avoid pregnancy while taking opioids. See a doctor right away if you become pregnant while taking opioid medicines.
Managing pain is an important part of your child’s treatment. Pain that is not controlled can harm your child.
However, having your child take opioid medicines is a serious decision because of the possible risks. Be sure to discuss the risks with your child’s doctor. Also talk with your child if they are old enough. You might be asked to sign a document called “informed consent,” showing that you know and understand the risks. Your care team will help you develop a plan to control your child’s pain in the best and safest way possible.
Your doctor uses information from you to learn if opioid medicines are working well for your child. Please take notes on the following questions and discuss your answers with your care team.
Opioids can have many benefits for pain management. However, anyone who takes opioid medicines is at risk for addiction. Factors that can increase your child’s risk for addiction or misuse include:
The care team can monitor patients to make sure opioids are used correctly. Monitoring can include:
Store opioid medicines carefully. Keep them in a safe, lockbox, or locked cabinet. Or you might put them where they are not easy to find.
Always store opioids and other medicines out of reach of children to avoid poisoning. You might want to keep opioids with you when you are not home. For example, you might carry them in your purse instead of leaving them home near your child.
Bring your child’s opioid medicines to any doctor’s appointments where you discuss managing pain. The staff might check and count the pills with you.
Do not save your child’s medicine “just in case.” Someone might find it and use it wrongly. If your child needs pain medicines again, the doctor can prescribe the best option.
Do not give opioids to someone else. This is against the law. It could also hurt the person you give them to.
If you have questions about opioids, please talk to your child’s doctor, nurse, or pharmacist.
Reviewed: September 2022