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Most commonly known as painkillers, prescription opioids such as hydrocodone, oxycodone and codeine are powerful, effective drugs. But, much like their close relative, heroin, they can also be very addictive and easily abused. (Opioid overdoses now kill more Americans every year than motor vehicle accidents, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.) Here are a few tips to keep you safe as you recover.


  • Review your medical history with your doctor before you start taking them. A family history of addiction or a mental health condition, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), could put you at greater risk for abusing painkillers. Other conditions, such as sleep apnea, may worsen under the influence of these powerful drugs. Also, be completely honest about all past and current drug and alcohol use.
  • Store painkillers in a safe place that’s out of reach of children or others (family friends, contractors, others) who might be at risk of abusing the drug or taking it by mistake.
  • Read the label and take the medication exactly as your doctor prescribes. If, over time, you believe that you need more of the drug to feel the same relief, you may be developing a dependency. Contact your doctor.
  • Stay aware of any concerns or side-effects, such as difficulty breathing, nausea, confusion, depression, and dizziness. If anything seems off, contact your doctor.
  • Remember that painkillers are just part of an overall pain management plan that may also include other medications and non-drug treatments such as exercise.
  • Stay in close touch with your doctor, especially as you finish your prescription. If you need to continue to manage your pain, be sure that you have—and can start acting on—a comprehensive plan.
  • Dispose of extra pills properly as soon as you are finished taking them, using the U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines. This will prevent the medication from winding up in the wrong hands or contaminating the environment. Find details here.


  • Rely on the pills alone. More and more doctors are trying other approaches, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), anti-depressant, psychotherapy, physical therapy and exercise. They may be prescribed before—or in combination with—painkillers.
  • Be afraid to take them. While painkillers do come with risks, they are often the most effective treatment for pain from surgery or an injury, and which typically lasts no longer than three months. They’re also proven effective for active cancer treatment, and palliative and end-of-life care.
  • Combine them with any other prescription medication without first talking with your doctor. Using painkillers in combination with other painkillers, other classes of drugs, such as benzodiazapines, (often used as sedatives or anti-anxiety medications) or even over-the-counter medications, can cause serious or even life-threatening reactions.
  • Drive or operate any heavy machinery until you have a clear idea of how you feel and behave while on the drugs. For example, many people experience some sedation or dizziness that could make driving dangerous. Before you drive, talk with your doctor.
  • View prescription painkillers as a long-term solution—especially for chronic pain. Studies have shown that opiates mask the symptoms of pain but don’t address the underlying cause.
  • Lose touch with your doctor once the prescription is filled. You may find that the drugs don’t limit your pain or improve your ability to function. If so, your doctor may have another solution. Likewise, if you feel a growing dependence on the drug or experience withdrawal symptoms without them, your doctor can connect you with other treatments to help.
  • Share or keep unused pills, once you no longer need them. Even a single dose of a painkiller can be very harmful when taken by the wrong person.