Basics About Prescription Opioids

At a glance

  • Opioids may be prescribed to treat moderate-to-severe pain following surgery, an injury, or other health conditions.
  • Prescription opioids carry considerable risk of side effects and can lead to misuse, addiction, or overdose.
  • There are safe and effective non-opioid medications for pain.
Photo of David with quote, "There is a way out of addiction. You don't have to do this alone."

Prescription opioids

Prescription opioids can be used to treat moderate-to-severe pain and may be prescribed following surgery or injury, or for health conditions such as cancer. Examples of commonly prescribed opioids include the following:

  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin®)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin®, Percocet®)
  • Oxymorphone
  • Morphine
  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydromorphone
  • Tapentadol
  • Methadone

When the prescription becomes the problem

Opioids can help with the management of pain; however, they carry considerable potential risk. There is also not enough evidence to show long-term benefit of treatment of chronic pain using prescription opioids.

In addition to the serious risks of addiction, misuse, and overdose, the use of prescription opioids can have a number of side effects, even when taken as directed:

  • Tolerance—meaning you might need to take more of the medication for the same pain relief
  • Physical dependence—meaning you have symptoms of withdrawal when the medication is stopped
  • Increased sensitivity to pain
  • Constipation
  • Nausea, vomiting, and dry mouth
  • Sleepiness and dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Low levels of testosterone that can result in lower sex drive, energy, and strength
  • Itching
  • Sweating

There were nearly five times the number of overdose deaths involving prescription opioids in 2021 than in 1999. In 2021, almost 21% of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths involved a prescription opioid. From 1999 to 2021, nearly 280,000 people died in the United States from a prescription opioid overdose1. Overdose is not the only risk related to prescription opioids. Anyone who takes prescription opioids can develop an opioid use disorder.

Talk to your doctor

Talk to your doctor about ways to manage your pain that do not involve prescription opioids. Some of these options may actually work better and have fewer risks and side effects. Depending on the type of pain you are experiencing, options may include:

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (Advil®)
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy – a psychological, goal-directed approach in which patients learn how to modify physical, behavioral, and emotional triggers of pain and stress
  • Exercise therapy, including physical therapy
  • Medications for depression or for seizures, some of which can treat pain
  • Interventional therapies (injections)
  • Exercise and weight loss
  • Other therapies such as acupuncture and massage

Your health and safety are important. Start the conversation with your doctor and work together to set pain management goals and develop a treatment plan that can help you. Follow-up if your pain is not resolving as quickly as expected.

If you are struggling with prescription opioid use, there is hope. Recovery is possible.

  • Wide-ranging online data for epidemiologic research (WONDER). Atlanta, GA: CDC, National Center for Health Statistics; 2022. Available at