What makes opioid medicines so dangerous?

Answer From Tyler S. Oesterle, M.D., M.P.H.

When used as directed by your doctor, opioid medicines safely help control severe pain, such as pain you may have after surgery. But there are risks when the medicines aren't used correctly.

What opioid medicines do

Opioids are a broad group of pain-relieving medicines that work with your brain cells. Opioids can be made from the poppy plant — for example, morphine (Duramorph, MS Contin, others). Or opioids can be made in a laboratory — for example, fentanyl (Actiq and Fentora). Other opioids that may sound familiar include codeine, hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin, Roxybond, others). But there are many more.

Opioid medicines travel through the blood and attach to opioid receptors in brain cells. This blocks pain messages and can boost feelings of pleasure.

When opioid medicines are dangerous

What makes opioid medicines effective for treating pain also can make them dangerous.

At lower doses, opioids may make you feel sleepy. But higher doses can slow your breathing and heart rate, which can lead to death. And the pleasure or feeling high that results from taking an opioid can make you want to continue taking them more often and at higher doses. This can lead to addiction: Your brain and behavior are so badly affected that you no longer can control your use of opioids.

You can reduce your risk of dangerous side effects by following your doctor's instructions carefully and taking your medicine as prescribed. Make sure your doctor knows all of the other medicines and supplements you're taking. Talk with your doctor about the pros and cons of using opioids for pain relief. Ask about taking a different type of pain medicine or using another method of pain control if you feel that you're at higher risk of addiction.


Tyler S. Oesterle, M.D., M.P.H.

Aug. 26, 2023