Opioids: Prescription Pain Relievers

A health care provider may give you a prescription opioid to reduce pain after you have had a major injury or surgery. You may get them if you have severe pain from health conditions like cancer. Some health care providers prescribe them for chronic pain. While medically beneficial, prescription opioids are highly addictive, even if used as directed.

What are prescription opioids? 

Prescription opioids interact with nerve cells to relieve pain and produce pleasurable effects.  

Medication Generic Names Brand Names
Codeine Various brand names; often combined with acetaminophen and aspirin
Hydrocodone Vicodin®, Lortab®, Lorcet®


Duragesic®, Actiq®, Sublimaze®
Oxycodone OxyContin®, Percodan®, Percocet®
Oxymorphone Opana®
Meperidine Demoral®
Methadone Dolophine®
Morphine Kadian®, Avinza®, MS Contin®, Duramorph®, Roxanol®

What are the risks from prescription opioids?

Even when taken as directed, prescription opioids can have a number of side effects, including:​

  • Confusion
  • Constipation
  • Depression
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Itching
  • Nausea
  • Sleepiness
  • Sweating
  • Vomiting

Long-term use of prescription opioids can cause some people to develop a tolerance. This means they need higher and/or more frequent doses of the drug to get the desired effects. This can happen even when taking the drug as directed by a medical professional. 

Drug dependence can occur with repeated use of the same drug. You are dependent on a drug when you are unable to live without it. You feel sick when you go without the drug or try to stop using. Dependence on a prescription opioid is a serious health condition. Medical support may be needed to stop taking the drug. 

Addiction can occur without being dependent on a drug. Addiction is a chronic disease in which you can't control your desire to use a drug. You continue to use the drug despite harmful consequences. An addiction to opioids can be treated. People can and do recover. 

What should I talk about with my medical professional?

  • Share information about past or current alcohol and drug use.
  • Share information about all medications and supplements you are taking.
  • Ask about risks and benefits of taking prescription opioids with your doctor.
  • Ask about other ways to manage your pain.  

What steps should I take if I'm prescribed opioids?

  • Use them only as instructed by your doctor. Never take prescription opioids in greater amounts or more often than prescribed. If the medication isn't working, talk to your doctor.
  • Consult your doctor before using prescription opioids with other drugs like:
    • Alcohol (beer, wine, and liquor).
    • Antihistamines (allergy medications like Benadryl®).
    • Barbiturates and benzodiazepines (often used as sleeping pills and sedatives; examples include Ambien®, Xanax®, and Valium®).
    • Cough medicine/cough syrup.
    • General anesthetics (often used for surgery).
  • Talk with your doctor about any and all side effects and concerns.
  • Store prescription opioids in a locked location and out of reach of others. Never sell or share prescription opioids.
  • Dispose of unused prescription opioids as soon as possible to limit the possibility of illegal use. Find a free drug take back site near you.

Know your options for pain management

Although prescription opioids can be effective at treating certain types of pain, there are different treatment options and therapies available.

  • Acupuncture usually uses thin needles to stimulate points on the body.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy helps people change thinking to improve behavior or mood.
  • Chiropractic care adjusts the spine and other parts of the body.
  • Yoga combines breathing techniques, physical poses, and mediation or relaxation.
  • Massage therapy involves the manipulation of soft tissue for health-related issues.
  • Meditation and relaxation uses mind and body connections to create a feeling of calm.
  • Physical therapy treats pain through movement, hands-on care, and patient education.

Finding and choosing a pain clinic: Visit our consumer guide to pain clinics in Wisconsin.

Know the signs of a problem

Anyone who uses opioids is at risk for opioid use disorder. This is a health condition that can be treated. Learn the symptoms.  

Related information
Last Revised: October 8, 2021