The opioid epidemic and seniors

Written by by Dr. Tere Koenig. Posted in October

If you’ve ever been hurt or had surgery, you’ve probably been prescribed pain medication. That’s the standard treatment of care, right? Well, for some this plan of care has an unplanned result—addiction. You may have heard about the opioid epidemic in the news lately, and you should know that it can especially impact older adults.


Consider this: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that almost 62 million patients had at least one prescription for opioids filled or refilled in 2016. According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Ohio leads the nation in opioid overdose deaths, with 3,050 reported in 2016. With these statistics it is not surprising that opioid abuse is now considered an “epidemic.”

What exactly are opioids?

Opioids are strong prescription medications that block pain signals to the brain and are often used to treat short-term pain caused by an injury or surgery. They can also be used to help manage long-term or chronic pain caused by cancer or back or nerve pain. The problem with opioids occurs when your body gets used to having the drug and requires more and more of it.

Opioids are prescribed by physicians because they do provide pain relief. They can also have side effects such as sleepiness, confusion, nausea (feeling sick to the stomach), and breathing problems. Taking just one large dose could cause serious breathing problems that could lead to death.

Some common types of opioids include oxycodone (OxyContin, Percodan, Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet), morphine (MS Contin), codeine, fentanyl, hydromorphone (Dilaudid), methadone, and diphenoxylate (Lomotil).

Alternatives for pain management

You should know that there are safer options for pain relief. Depending on the cause of your pain, opioids may not be the best treatment for you. Ask your healthcare provider about nondrug treatments for pain, such as exercise and physical therapy. If those don’t help, ask your healthcare provider if you could try over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), or anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn).

Prescription precautions

If an opioid medication is prescribed for you, make sure you take it as directed and store it in a locked drawer or cabinet to prevent others from taking it. Call your doctor if it’s not working or if you experience any adverse side effects.

You should also call your doctor if you fear you are becoming dependent on it. If you need information on addiction treatment, call the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator at 800-662-HELP or visit

If you don’t finish your prescription or have an expired prescription in your home, be sure to dispose of the remaining pills safely. Some Walgreens pharmacies have disposal kiosks, and many law-enforcement agencies have drop boxes available. To find other locations near you, visit

Talk to your doctor about what might be best for you. Prescription opioids can effectively reduce the pain and discomfort caused by many medical conditions. However, they can also be very dangerous drugs for some people. Never be afraid to ask questions. It could save your life.❦

Elizabeth Scott