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Prescription opioids: Information for consumers

18 November 2019

Prescription opioids are one of the medicines that are used to manage moderate to severe pain in a wide variety of individual patient circumstances.

You might need prescription opioids following an operation, or in the aftermath of an accident.

Paramedics may use opioids at the scene of a motor vehicle accident, when rapid response emergency pain management is needed.

People can be sent home from hospital with oxycodone after a knee or hip surgery, for instance, to help with the initial strong pain in the first two to three days after the anaesthetic wears off.

If a patient is receiving cancer treatment, or when someone has entered palliative care - then prescription opioids can be an effective and necessary form of pain management.

What are the different types of prescription opioids?

Some examples of prescription opioids include:

  • fentanyl
  • codeine
  • hydromorphone
  • oxycodone
  • morphine
  • tramadol
  • tapentadol
  • buprenorphine
  • methadone

Challenges with opioid use

Locally and internationally, the rising use of opioids is a cause of growing concern.

They are drugs that carry a number of serious side-effects.

People who use prescription opioids for more than a few days risk developing dependence.

Opioid use can result in dependence, accidental overdose, hospitalisation or death.

In the United States, harm from prescription opioid misuse has reached epidemic proportions since its widespread proliferation from the 1990s.

In Australia, drug-induced deaths and poisoning hospitalisations linked to prescription opioids have been increasing.

Every day in Australia, nearly 150 hospitalisations and 14 emergency department admissions involve opioid harm, and three people die from drug-induced deaths involving opioid use.

To help reduce the harm and to mitigate against an escalating problem in Australia, the TGA has been introducing changes to prescription opioid regulation to keep consumers safe.

The changes are also designed to help medical practitioners manage how and when they prescribe opioids and how to strengthen the relationship of trust and communication with their patients in this area.

It is very important for consumers to note that these changes are not designed to prevent those who need prescription opioids to manage acute pain from having the access they need.

What is being done through the TGA?

From 2020, a number of changes are being implemented and will be carefully and progressively rolled out from this time.

The option of prescribing opioid products in smaller pack sizes will be added to the market.

This will provide your GP with an alternative prescribing option for short-term pain relief, for example, after surgery or injury, to reduce the risk of dependence and harm from unused opioids.

Improvements to information for prescribers and patients will encourage best-practice prescribing and help consumers to be better informed about the potential risks and how to mitigate them. Ultimately, the decision to prescribe an opioid or explore alternatives is a clinical one for the prescriber.

This improved information will cover all prescription opioids, right up to the strongest and most potent, and will help regulate the supply and use of this product.

What should I do?

If you are taking prescription opioids and need more information about safe use, see your doctor. Pain management is a very personal process and requires strict medical supervision to refine.

If you know someone who is taking prescription opioids and you are concerned about their health, support is available.

If you are a health professional dealing with someone who is using opioids, there are many resources available.

Access to opioids: safe use and storage

When using prescription opioids, it is important to use them as directed by your health professional. Regardless of recent changes, you should never stop taking your medicines unless advised by your doctor.

And if you have unused opioids, they should be returned to your local pharmacy for safe, secure and free disposal.

Leaving them around the house poses a risk to children and pets and can be a target for theft or diversion.

Further information and resources

Reach for the facts

How we regulate medicines

Overview of prescription medicines

Prescription opioids hub

Pain Australia