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Giving Opioid Prescription Pain Medicine: What Parents Need to Know

Medically reviewed by: Elissa G. Miller, MD and Larissa Hirsch, MD

Sometimes children need medicine to help with pain after surgery or a procedure. Prescription opioid medicines are very good at controlling pain. They work by blocking pain messages from reaching the brain.

There are risks to taking opioid pain medicines. They can cause serious side effects and lead to dependence, addiction, and overdose. The misuse of these medicines has contributed to the opioid crisis in America. Hundreds of people die from opioid overdoses every day, and millions are fighting addiction.

You may be worried that your child could become addicted or be at risk for an overdose. By reading the information below and following the opioid safety checklist, you can give your child opioid pain medicine as safely as possible.

Opioid Safety Checklist

  • Give the opioids exactly as prescribed.
  • Give the opioids only to the person they were prescribed for.
  • Store the opioids in a locked cabinet away from children, friends, and visitors.
  • Keep track of how much medicine is in the container so you know if someone else is taking the medicine.
  • Safely get rid of any leftover opioids as soon as your child no longer needs them.
  • Talk to your children about the risks of taking medicines that are not prescribed for them.

What Opioid Pain Medicines Are Prescribed for Children and Teens?

Opioid pain medicines prescribed for children and teens include:

  • hydrocodone with acetaminophen liquid (Hycet®) and pills (Vicodin® and Lortab®)
  • oxycodone with acetaminophen pills (Percocet®)
  • hydromorphone liquid and pills (Dilaudid®)
  • morphine liquid and pills
  • oxycodone liquid and pills
  • others: If your child is prescribed a pain medicine that is not on this list, find out if it is an opioid.

What Are the Risks of Opioid Pain Medicines?

Someone who takes an opioid pain medicine for a few days might notice side effects like sleepiness, constipation, itching, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. When opioids are taken as directed, these side effects may be inconvenient, but are not dangerous.

If opioids are taken for longer, there are other risks, including:

  • developing a tolerance (needing more opioid for the same pain relief) 
  • physical dependence (having symptoms of withdrawal when the opioid is stopped) 
  • addiction (when someone has very strong cravings and continues to take an opioid even when it causes problems with health, relationships, and money)

Someone addicted to opioids will want to get more when the prescription runs out. This can lead to inappropriate or risky behavior, such as lying to a doctor to get a new prescription, buying opioids from a friend, stealing opioids from friends or family, or buying and using street drugs.

Taking too much of an opioid or mixing it with other drugs and/or alcohol can lead to overdose and death.

Could My Child Become Addicted to Opioids?

Most kids and teens who take opioids for a short time as instructed by a health care provider do not get addicted. For example, a teen who has surgery or a broken bone and takes an opioid as prescribed is very unlikely to become addicted.

What Can Help if Someone Takes Too Much of an Opioid?

Naloxone (brand name Narcan) is a nasal spray that can help if someone has too much of an opioid drug in their system. When someone takes too much opioid, it can slow their breathing, sometimes dangerously, which is how overdose deaths from opioids happen. Narcan reverses the effect of the opioid so the person starts breathing normally again. It is safe to give this spray to anyone who is unconscious with known or suspected opioid use.

Why Do I Need to Lock Up the Opioids?

Sometimes people take opioids prescribed for someone else. For example, a teen might take a younger sibling's medicine or someone might take a friend's opioid to manage pain, anxiety, or sleep problems. They might think that prescription opioid medicines are safer than street drugs because health care providers prescribe them.

But prescription opioids can lead to serious side effects, addiction, and overdose. Keeping the opioids locked up will help make sure they're taken only by the person they were prescribed for.

How Do I Safely Dispose of Unused Medicine?

Ask your health care provider or pharmacist how to safely get rid of any unused medicine. They might recommend that you flush the medicine, mix it with coffee grounds or kitty litter and then throw it away, or take it to a drug take-back program. The FDA has more information.

How Can I Help Prevent Opioid Addiction in Our Family?

Talk to your kids about using medicines safely. Tell them that prescription pain medicines are safe only when prescribed by a health care provider and can be dangerous or addictive if used in any other way. Set a good example by never taking medicine that wasn't prescribed for you.

How Can I Get Help for Someone With a Substance Abuse Problem?

Call SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). This free and confidential service is available in English and Spanish.

Medically reviewed by: Elissa G. Miller, MD and Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: August 2023