Opioid tablets. Photo via Wikimeda Commons

By Michael J. Bailey, M.D.

Someone in the U.S. dies from an opioid overdose every 13 minutes; last year these medications killed 50,000 people across the country. In San Diego County, more overdose deaths are caused by opioids than any other kind of drug. There are times when opioid medications are the right way to help people manage short-term or long-term pain, but it’s vitally important that these medications are provided at the right dose for the right length of time.

If your doctor or dentist prescribes a pain reliever, take charge of your health and find out exactly what you are getting. Medical experts recommend you ask your doctor these questions about any opioid prescription. Common opioid brand names include Vicodin and Percocet.

Why do I need this medicine? Ask your doctor why it is right for you and how long you should take it. After a simple medical or dental procedure, some people may need just one or two doses.

Are there other, safer options that will address my pain? Opioids are not the only option for treating pain. Other options are available. Talk to your doctor about over-the-counter pain relievers such as Tylenol, Aleve or Advil that may be enough. Check to see whether your health insurance plan covers physical therapy or chiropractic care, which could also provide pain relief.

Can we minimize my exposure? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have published specific guidelines that direct doctors to prescribe the lowest dose of pain medicine for the shortest length of time possible.

How does this medicine mix with other medicines I’m taking? Opioids can be deadly when mixed with other drugs, especially those that treat anxiety, sleep disorders and seizures. To avoid dangerous interactions, talk to your pharmacist or doctor about all medications you take. Never mix alcohol with an opioid pain reliever.

What are my risks for addiction? Anyone can become addicted to opioid medications, and the risks increase after just three days of use. Opioids are not like antibiotics—you do not need to finish the whole prescription.

What should someone do with unused opioid medicine? More than two thirds of people misusing opioid painkillers for nonmedical reasons first obtained them from family or friends, often from the home medicine cabinet. Keep opioids in a safe place, like a locked cabinet or medicine safe, and never share your medication with anyone else.

It’s important to dispose of unused medicine safely, to protect other people and the environment. Most people don’t use all of their opioid prescriptions and don’t dispose of them properly.

National Prescription Take Back Day on Oct. 27 offers San Diego residents a chance to safely dispose of unused opioids before they fall into the wrong hands. Visit www.takebackday.dea.gov for more information and to find a collection site near you.

For more information on substance use disorder treatment services available in San Diego County, call the Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240 or visit the Health & Human Services Agency website.

Michael J. Bailey, M.D., is the medical director for Optum San Diego. He is a board certified psychiatrist and has practiced in San Diego for more than 20 years

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