Many Americans Aren’t Quite Sure What an Opioid Is—Here’s What You Should Know

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Photo: Getty Images/Matthew Stewart Bennett
Despite being in the midst of an opioid epidemic that continues to get worse, many Americans, it turns out, aren't quite sure what the most common opioids actually are, as highlighted in a new survey of 1,000 people.

Conducted by health technology company DrFirst, which includes a network of over 300,000 health-care providers, the survey found that only one in five participants could name five of the seven most commonly prescribed opioids. (For the record, they are: Tramadol, Hydromorphone, Morphine sulfate, Methadone, Hydrocodone, Fentanyl, and Oxycodone.)

The reason why being able to identify opioids is a big deal is because if you don't know you're being prescribed one, you won't be aware of the side effects or risk factors. "[The health repercussions of not knowing if you're being prescribed an opioid or not] are quite serious as opioids are associated with opioid-induced respiratory depression which can lead to overdose and death,"  says family medicine physician and pain management expert Robert Agnello, DO. "Overdose is not difficult. A patient could also take these with alcohol unaware and heighten the risk."

"It’s important for people to understand the effects that opiates have on the body as well as the impact they can have on judgment and insight," says Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D, a licensed clinical psychologist and the executive director of Innovation360, an outpatient counseling service that works with people struggling with substance abuse. Here, Dr. Gilliland and Dr. Agnello detail what it's important to know about opioid medications.

Experts In This Article
  • Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and executive director of Innovation360
  • Robert Agnello, DO, family medicine physician, pain management specialist, and assistant professor of family medicine at Campbell University

1. Doctors are required to tell patients when they are prescribing an opioid.

Both Dr. Agnello and Dr. Gilliland say it's unlawful for doctors to prescribe an opioid to a patient without calling it out as such. "In my opinion this would be medical malpractice and it would be hard for me to imagine that a patient is not informed that the medication they are given is an opioid—no matter what the setting, [such as the] emergency room, urgent care, surgery, dental, or primary care," Dr. Agnello says.

2. Doctors should tell patients about the side effects and risks of opioids.

Dr. Gilliland says that when doctors are prescribing an opioid, they should cover both the physical and mental impacts the drug has. While most doctors will do this, Dr. Agnello points out that there is no formal tool or form doctors use to specifically educate patients about opioids, something he says the medical field is lacking. (He does say may clinics use the Veterans Affairs medication consent form, which highlights opioids' benefits, risks, side effects, and alternatives to opioid therapy.) Dr. Agnello says the burden of asking questions about opioids' safety should never be on the patient—it should be on the doctor—but if you do have concerns to of course voice them.

3. Some health conditions heighten the risk of opioid addiction.

According to Dr. Agnello, sleep apnea, drinking alcohol, or using sedative drugs such as benzodiazepines all increase the risk of opioid addiction, so these are factors to bring up to your doctor, if they apply to you. "Also, risk increases for opioid addiction after just 10 days in people with a family history of addiction or underlying mood disorders, like depression and anxiety," he adds, naming other factors that are worth raising with your doctor.

4. A history of addiction does not automatically mean you won't be able to take them.

If you have a history of addiction but are in serious pain and believe an opioid medication is the best treatment for you, you may be tempted not to tell your doctor about your health history. This is definitely a case where honesty is the best (possibly life-saving) policy and Dr. Gilliland says a history of addiction won't automatically mean you can't obtain a prescription.

"It doesn’t mean they won’t be able to take them, but it does mean that a greater level of caution should be used," he says. "[Doctors] may write [a prescription] for a shorter period of time and encourage people to have a family [member] or close friend dispense and monitor the medications." Dr. Gilliland adds that patients should also discuss ways to minimize pain and discomfort so they can take the lowest dose possible for the shortest amount of time.

When used properly, opioids are a very effective to relieve pain. But they do come with a risk. That's why it's not only important to know what the most commonly prescribed ones are, but to be able to have a conversation with your doctor (or dentist) about it. When it comes to opioids, knowledge isn't only power, it could also be life-saving.

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