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Opioid analgesics

Opioid analgesics can be more effective for pain relief than simple non-opioid analgesics, so they’re used for moderate to severe pain, usually when other analgesics haven’t worked. Pain is considered to be severe if it’s disabling, meaning it interferes with your daily life and/or you have to take more frequent rests or can only walk or move awkwardly.

Commonly used opioids include codeine, morphine and tramadol.

Opioid analgesics are only available on prescription from your doctor. This is because they tend to cause more side-effects than simple analgesics and can lead to dependency and addiction. Your doctor will monitor you more closely when you're taking them.

How do I take them?

Opioid analgesics come in a tablet or patch. Your doctor will advise on which type is best for you depending on:

  • how severe your pain is
  • your age
  • any other medication that you’re taking.

In many cases opioid analgesics are used for short periods of time or alongside other painkillers when necessary. This is to reduce the risk of side-effects and dependency.

What are the possible risks and side-effects?

The most common side-effects with opioid painkillers are:

  • nausea and vomiting (some people are more prone to this than others, but it often settles with time)
  • constipation
  • drowsiness and dizziness, which is increased when combined with alcohol – be careful when driving and using electrical equipment
  • reduced concentration or confusion
  • reduced ability to breathe (respiratory depression) – make sure your doctor knows if you have long-term breathing problems like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma.

If you experience any side-effects, talk to your doctor. All side-effects are more common in older people, so you may be given a lower dose.

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