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What Are the Different Opioid Side Effects?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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Opioid side effects can include gastrointestinal problems, central nervous system depression, and unpleasant sensory experiences like itching and tingling. Over time, patients can also develop tolerance and dependence. These create concerns for patients and medical providers who want to use opioids for pain management. While the medications can be highly effective, the risks need to be carefully considered and controlled during treatment. As side effects develop, they should be addressed to ensure the patient receives adequate pain management.

One of the most notorious opioid side effects is constipation, which can become so severe that patients may discontinue the medication. Using stool softeners and making dietary adjustments can help to manage this problem. Patients can also develop nausea and vomiting, which may be mitigated by antiemetic medications, changing the timing of doses, or eliminating some foods from the diet.

These drugs act on the central nervous system, creating a sedating effect. Patients may feel sluggish on opioids, and can find it difficult to complete daily tasks, let alone operate heavy or complex machinery. It is also possible to develop a risk of respiratory depression, where the patient breathes too slowly and shallowly to get enough oxygen. Care providers need to watch carefully to monitor patients for signs that the sedation is too deep.

Pruritis, consistent and irritating itching, can also be among the opioid side effects. Some patients experience tingling, rashes, or other problems. These can be exacerbated by bed sores or hot spots created by the pressure of lying in bed. Patients on high doses of opioids can be more likely to spend substantial lengths of time in bed because of their ill health, and require regular rotation and skin checks to make sure their skin remains healthy and unbroken.

In the long term, opioid side effects include dependence. As the patient takes the medication, the body adapts, and the patient needs more and more for control. It may be necessary to switch to a more powerful drug to achieve the same level of control. Eventually, patients can reach the point of needing dangerously high doses for pain management. This can increase the risk of an overdose.

Dependence is another concern with opioid side effects. Patients using these medications for pain management can be at risk of developing withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking them abruptly or experience a long delay between doses. The benefits of improved pain control and comfort may be considered worth the risk, but patients should always consult a doctor before stopping opioid therapy for pain in case they are at risk of complications.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Read more
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