According to the CDC, “Health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for painkillers in 2012, enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills.” Because the prescription of opioid drugs is so common today, it is important to understand the possible side effects these medications can have. Many of the side effects are harmless while others can very possibly become harmful; this mostly depends on whether or not the drug is being abused.
Common Side Effects
As stated by the VA, “It is critical for successful opioid therapy to make sure patients are aware of common side effects and to provide a list of those that most commonly occur.” Depending on what drug is actually being taken, some of these are more likely to become problematic, but most opioid drugs cause the same common side effects. These general effects include:
- Dry mouth
These are all acute side effects that are likely to occur whenever the individual is currently on the drug. Constipation is usually the side effect most complained of by patients, and doctors can prescribe other medications that can sometimes help with this issue. Still, most of these side effects are not dangerous as long as the patient understands how to behave safely while on the drug. Clinicians will commonly warn these individuals against driving or doing things that require intense concentration while currently on opioids.
Long-term Side Effects
Some of the other side effects caused by these drugs occur after long-term use. These can often be more problematic and lead to other issues. They include:
Tolerance often occurs when an individual has been taking opioids chronically for a long period of time. The person will start to notice that the drug no longer causes the same effects at the same dosage.
Individuals who become dependent on opioids experience a condition where they do not feel normal without the drug. This can be dangerous in its own right.
- Increased sensitivity to pain
Also called opioid-induced hyperalgesia, this occurs “when opioid use causes the body to be extra sensitive to usually non-painful things” (University of Utah Health Care).
- Sexual dysfunction
“Hormones such as testosterone and estrogen tend to be lower in patients taking opioids.”
Dangerous Side Effects
There are some side effects which occur more rarely than the ones listed above but can be dangerous for the user if not immediately treated. These include:
- Respiratory depression
Opioids often cause a low level of respiratory depression when taken as directed. However, if a person starts to take higher doses, it could lead to stopped breathing or even death.
- Allergic reaction
Some individuals experience hives, itching, rashes, or swelling of the face or other areas of the body when they begin to take opioid drugs (NLM). These are signs of an allergic reaction, and the individual needs to meet with their doctor immediately and be switched to a different medication.
Oxycodone and some other opioid-based drugs can cause seizures in certain individuals. However, this side effect is rare.
Only when an individual begins to abuse these drugs will they be in danger of becoming addicted.