If you or someone you know uses opioids, it’s important to learn about using them safely. Safety can help reduce the risk of opioid intoxication, accidental overdose, and other adverse effects.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 75% of the 107,000 drug overdose deaths in 2021 involved an opioid, and about 2.7 million people had an opioid use disorder in 2020.

While recreational opioid use isn’t safe, there are precautions you can take to reduce the risks as much as possible. This principle is called “harm reduction”: the idea that any positive change is worth working toward, including the use of drugs in a safer way.

Even if you’re prescribed opioids, it’s important to learn about using them safely to avoid harming yourself and others.

If you use prescription opioids, it’s important to follow the prescribed information. You will want to avoid exceeding the dose prescribed to you or taking it more often than prescribed.

If your usual dose isn’t providing relief, consult with the doctor or healthcare professional who prescribed the opioid to you. You could be developing a tolerance to the opioid, which is when the medication loses its intended effect.

Don’t increase your dose without getting the go-ahead from the prescribing doctor.

Opioids can be dangerous when used in conjunction with certain substances. When a drug combination is potentially harmful, it’s called an “interaction.”

Opioids may interact with:

  • alcohol
  • antiseizure medications
  • benzodiazepines (Ativan, Xanax, or Valium)
  • certain antibiotics and antifungal medications
  • certain antidepressants
  • certain HIV medications
  • muscle relaxants
  • sleep medications

Every type of opioid has its own specific interactions. What may be safe to use with one opioid may be dangerous when used with another.

Don’t suddenly stop taking prescription medication unless a medical professional says it’s OK.

If you’re not sure whether you can take opioids with your current medication, it’s best to consult with a healthcare professional as soon as you can to check whether it’s safe.

Given how common opioid misuse is, it’s not only important to use opioids safely but also to take precautions to prevent others from misusing your prescription.

Don’t share or sell prescription opioids, even to people who have their own prescription.

Try to store prescription opioids in a safe place to prevent others from accessing them. Keep them out of reach of children but also adults who may misuse them, especially if they have a history of substance misuse.

Safe storage doesn’t mean you don’t trust your loved ones; it means you’re taking precautions to keep them safe.

If you have unused opioids at the end of your treatment, dispose of them correctly. You can do this by:

Never throw medications into the trash.

It’s a good idea to learn how to use naloxone, especially if you or your loved ones use nonprescription drugs. Nonprescription drugs may be laced with opioids without your knowledge.

Naloxone, better known by the brand name “Narcan,” is a medication that can be given to someone who has overdosed on opioids or opiates. In the event of an overdose, Narcan can be lifesaving.

Nowadays, naloxone nasal spray can be bought over the counter. It’s a good idea to keep it available and to let others know where to find it.

If you’re using opioids or opiates that haven’t been prescribed to you, it’s important to test them before use. Even pills that look legitimate may be laced with other chemicals.

To test opioids before use, you can:

  • Get tests from your local pharmacy or a resource like DanceSafe.
  • Visit a safe consumption site (also called a supervised “consumption site” or “injection site”).
  • Visit a needle exchange program.

Whenever using unprescribed drugs, including opioids as well as other substances, it’s best to stay on the side of caution and test for contaminants.

Opioid use can be riskier if you’re using a higher-than-usual dose or a medication that’s new to you. This is especially true for unprescribed opioid use.

For that reason, it’s best to avoid using opioids alone. Find a safe consumption site in your area or have a trusted loved one supervise you. Keep naloxone on hand and ensure they know how to administer it and where to get necessary help.

If you do use opioids alone, set up safeguards. These safeguards could include having a trusted person call or come over at a set time or calling the Never Use Alone hotline.

Learning to identify the signs and symptoms of opioid misuse and opioid use disorder — in yourself and others — can be the first step to getting help.

Symptoms of opioid misuse and opioid use disorder include:

  • inability to decrease the amount of opioids used
  • changes in sleep or appetite
  • cravings for the medication
  • difficulties at work or school because of your opioid use
  • negative social consequences because of your opioid use
  • withdrawal symptoms when you stop using the opioids
  • need of more prescription opioids than usual to get the same effect (developing a tolerance)
  • use of the medication when you don’t need it for the issue for which it’s prescribed (e.g., when you’re not in pain)
  • use of opioids despite worsening physical or psychological health

More generally, the symptoms of substance use disorder include:

  • aggression
  • apathy
  • bloodshot or glazed eyes
  • changes in sleeping patterns
  • changes in speech like slurred words or rapid rambling
  • changes in weight and eating patterns
  • mood changes
  • neglect of relationships, hobbies, and work
  • increased secrecy about activities and drug use
  • unexplained injuries or illness

If you think you or a loved one has substance use disorder, be aware that there are treatments available. It’s possible to overcome opioid misuse and feel better.

You can only benefit from being informed about the risks of opioid use.

You can learn more about harm reduction and safe use at the following links:

You can get help at the following resources:

Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s passionate about empowering readers to take care of their mental and physical health through science-based, empathetically delivered information.