August 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day

Taking pain medication? Ask your doctor about overdose.

What are opioids?
Opioid medications are a type of painkiller. Some are sold over the counter (such as Tylenol No. 1) and others are prescribed by a doctor or dentist. Examples of prescribed opioids include codeine (in Tylenol No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4), oxycodone (in Percocet and OxyNEO, which replaced OxyContin), morphine, hydromorphone (Dilaudid) and fentanyl.

Opioids are depressant drugs. This means they slow down the part of the brain that controls breathing. It’s dangerous to take opioids while taking other depressants, such as alcohol, anxiety medication, sleeping pills or other medications that may make you drowsy, including over-the-counter medicine such as Gravol and Benadryl.

Why are opioids prescribed?
Opioid medications can be effective to manage pain when used as prescribed. Your doctor may prescribe them if you are in a lot of pain after surgery or an accident, or your dentist may prescribe them after dental surgery.

You may develop a tolerance to opioids
If you use opioids to manage pain, you may develop tolerance. This means you may need to use more to get the same effect. If you stop taking the drug for a few days, your tolerance will change. If you then start taking the same dose that you took before you stopped, your risk of overdose will go up.

Opioids can cause dependence
If you use opioids for more than one week, you may become dependent on them. This is not the same as being addicted. It means that if you stop using opioids suddenly, you may have very uncomfortable, though not life-threatening, withdrawal symptoms. These may include:

  • sweating
  • chills, shivering
  • restlessness and/or extreme restless leg syndrome
  • depression
  • clammy or prickly skin (goosebumps)
  • nausea, severe cramping and/or diarrhea
  • yawning
  • poor sleep
  • uneasiness, agitation, severe anxiety

How do I know if I have an opioid addiction?
When a person is addicted to opioid medication, they have both physical and psychological dependance. Physical dependence means your body reacts to the absence of the drug. Psychological dependence means the drug is at the centre of your thoughts and feelings. You may crave the drug, and you may have to use more and more of it just to feel normal. You may want to stop, but can’t.

Risk factors for opioid problems
Please refer to the Government of Canada website for more information on opioids.

How to reduce your risk of opioid problems

  • Only take medications that are prescribed for you, with your doctor’s or dentist’s supervision.
  • If you are prescribed opioids for pain, talk to your doctor, dentist or pharmacist about the benefits and risks.
  • Don’t take opioids with other depressant drugs, such as alcohol, anxiety or sleeping pills, Gravol or Benadryl. If you have to do so, consult your health care provider.
  • Return any unused medication to your pharmacist.
  • Do not use another person’s medications.

Getting help
Addictions Hotline - 1-866-332-2322
Addictions and Mental Health Community Clinic, Leduc - 780-986-2660
Alberta Health Services online resource
Government of Canada online resource