The harmful effects of opioid abuse have reached crisis levels in the United States.

The statistics are sobering. Over 42,000 people died from an opioid overdose in 2016. An estimated 2.1 million individuals suffer from an opioid use disorder, while 11.4 million misused their prescription opioids.

Needless to say, this public health epidemic is having far-reaching consequences. It shouldn’t be surprising that with news of overdoses and other harmful outcomes constantly in the news, many become nervous when their doctor prescribes an opioid medication.

But the use of medications doesn’t have to lead to a substance abuse disorder.

I reached out to Matthew DeLuca, co-founder and vice president of The C.A.R.E.S. Group and regional outreach coordinator for Steps to Recovery, to learn more about what can be done to avoid harmful opioid use.

Here’s how you can keep yourself safe:

1) Be Honest About Your Medical History

“Understanding your medical history is crucial for safe opioid use,” DeLuca explains.

“For people with conditions like depression, sleep apnea or fibromyalgia, a high risk of dangerous side effects makes these drugs a bad idea.”

“As far as abuse is concerned, those with a personal or family history of alcohol or drug abuse, as well as severe anxiety or depression, are more likely to develop a substance abuse disorder. Such conditions should always be disclosed to your doctor before receiving a prescription.”

By telling your doctor about conditions that could complicate your use of an opioid medication, they can identify alternative treatments that minimize your risk of ever becoming addicted.

2) Follow Instructions Closely

To minimize the risk of addiction, the CDC requires that doctors prescribing opioid pain medication start with the lowest effective dose, while limiting how long the medication will be taken. 

Such prescriptions are typically part of a multifaceted treatment plan for addressing acute pain.

When a doctor or pharmacist prescribes medication, they will give specific instructions regarding how it should be used. You should never deviate from these instructions. 

If the medication doesn’t seem to be working as well as it should, consult your doctor for advice — don’t attempt to alter your dosage on your own. This is one of the most common ways that a standard prescription leads to addiction.

3) Know the Effect of Other Medications

“Any other medications you might be taking can also impact the safe use of an opioid medication,” DeLuca notes.

“As with your medical history, you need to be upfront with your doctor about other medications you use, as well as whether you consume alcohol or other drugs. Disclose everything so they can have the full picture.”

Alcohol, antidepressants and drugs for psychiatric disorders or sleeping problems often have harmful effects when they interact with an opioid medication — including an increased risk for misuse.

Informing your doctors of other medications you take will help them determine if opioids are a safe option for your treatment.

As an extra layer of protection, obtain all medications through the same pharmacy. This way, your pharmacist can track your treatment and keep you from taking out additional prescriptions that could cause harmful interactions.

4) Keep Up With Regular Checkups

Due to the high risk for misuse, doctors typically require consistent followup appointments after a patient begins using opioid medication. 

“Don’t treat these appointments as an optional visit,” DeLuca advises.

“You need to give your doctor a chance to evaluate how the medication is working and to check for any negative side effects or signs of misuse. They’ll often be able to identify warning signs that you might not notice on your own.”

These followup visits often include pill counts and urine tests to ensure that you aren’t misusing your medication. These visits are also crucial for your doctor to make any adjustments to your prescription to ensure effective treatment and continued safe use.

5) Watch For Signs of Misuse

At the end of the day, you and your loved ones will need to be your first line of defense against opioid misuse. You need to watch for warning signs in your own behavior, while also enlisting the help of trusted friends or family to check in on your usage.

So what do you need to watch out for?

“Misuse usually starts with seemingly small things, like taking medication for ‘preventative reasons,’ even when you aren’t in pain, or taking more than the recommended dosage,” DeLuca explains.

“As misuse increases, you’ll likely notice mood swings or other unusual side effects. Some people will even start asking to ‘borrow’ others’ medication.” 

If you’ve noticed these warning signs in yourself or a loved one, it is important that you reach out to your doctor right away. “Your doctor will help you safely wean yourself off the drug,” DeLuca says.

“A gradual approach monitored by a medical professional is usually safer and more effective than trying to go cold turkey on your own.”

Opioid addiction has become a significant problem in modern society.

But you don’t have to fall victim to its clutches. Whether you’re nervous about receiving a prescription or are concerned that you have developed a mild disorder, safe outcomes are possible when you take the necessary steps.