Opioids are a class of strong, pain-relieving drugs. The term “opioid” comes from the word opium, a substance derived from the poppy plant. Opioids are very addictive and can lead to illness, overdose, and death if misused. Even so, opioids do have a legitimate use in medicine when they are prescribed and used correctly.
The reddish-brown substance found in the pods of poppy plants (above) is used to make opium.

Prescription opioids include medicines like OxyContin®, Percocet®, Vicodin®, morphine, and others. These medicines are used to treat severe pain. For example, a doctor might give their patient an opioid painkiller to relieve severe pain after a surgery. Opioid painkillers might also be prescribed for long-term (a.k.a. “chronic”) pain, or for hospice patients.

Because prescription opioids are very powerful and addictive, doctors might not give them to a patient unless the potential benefits are greater than the risks. They may also try other treatments to relieve pain before prescribing opioids. Doctors and pharmacists use many strategies like these to limit the number of opioid pills in their community. The goal is to prevent patients from becoming addicted, and to reduce the likelihood that the pills could be misused by others.

Healthcare providers think about many different factors related to opioid prescriptions. They consider safety guidelines and suggestions from the CDC; policies at their hospital, clinic, or pharmacy; the needs of the individual patient; the different kinds of opioids; other, non-opioid treatments for pain; and the conditions in their local community. With all these considerations, it is easy for people to feel confused or misunderstood. That’s why clear and honest conversations with your doctor are so important.

Here are some ideas and tips for talking with your doctor.

      • Ask, “Is an opioid really the best option?” Opioids are not the only way to treat pain. Ask about non-opioid medications, physical therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or other ways to manage pain.
      • Know what medicines you take. Keep a list of all your medications, including how much you take and how often. Talk with your doctor about everything you take: over-the-counter medicine, prescriptions, supplements, and even non-medical drugs like alcohol and tobacco. Some medicines can have dangerous interactions with other drugs, and your doctor needs to know this information to protect your health.
      • Use your medicine correctly. Always follow the directions of your doctor and the medicine label. For new medications, make sure you understand how much you should take, how often, with food or not, and so on. Ask about possible side effects and interactions with other medicines. If you notice any problems, call your doctor!
      • Store medicine securely and dispose of leftover pills safely. Visit TakeThemBack.org for a list of secure medicine disposal sites in the Roanoke Valley.
      • Stay aware of how many pills you have. Missing pills are a sign that someone else might be misusing them.
      • Know the signs of an overdose: confusion, slurred speech, slow breathing, unusual heart beat, unconsciousness, blue lips or skin, and cold or clammy skin. Call 911 immediately if you see someone overdose.
          • Virginia has a “Good Samaritan” Law intended to protect people from being arrested if they call 911 for a drug overdose. For more information, click here or ask an attorney.
      • Carry and know how to use naloxone. Naloxone (or brand name Narcan®) can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and potentially save someone’s life. If you take an opioid medicine, consider telling someone you trust so they can administer naloxone in case of an overdose. (You can’t use naloxone on yourself if you are unconscious.) Learn more from the Roanoke City Health Department website here: www.vdh.virginia.gov/roanoke/naloxone/
      • If you have concerns or questions about anything related to your health, ask your provider. They are here to help!

Pills are Not Candy

Just like we should be careful about how we use and store prescription opioids, we should also be careful how we talk about prescription opioids. Sometimes, when someone is about to have surgery, people will reassure them that they will not feel much pain because of “special, magic pills” or “the really good stuff” (referring to opioids). While opioids are one effective way to manage pain after surgery, we need to remember that opioids can also cause addiction and life-threatening overdose if they are misused. Please be mindful of how you talk about opioids, especially around youth.


Everything on this website is for informational purposes only. Nothing on this site is intended to replace professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment offered by physicians. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or treatment, including any prescription medications.

If you or someone you know has a problem with opioid use or other substance use, find treatment options near you by visiting www.findtreatment.gov

If you are feeling suicidal or in emotional distress, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. In emergencies, dial 911.

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