Common concerns about opioid painkillers

People have often heard stories about opioids like morphine or oxycodone, which may make them worry about taking them. We explain some common concerns here.

Can I get addicted to opioid painkillers?

Some people worry about getting addicted to opioid painkillers. Addiction shouldn’t be a problem for people with cancer if they take their painkillers as prescribed by their doctor.

Very occasionally, your body can get used to a painkiller if you take it for a long time. This means that a stronger dose, or a different painkiller is needed to have the same effect on your pain., This is known as drug tolerance, which is very different to drug addiction. Your doctor will help you manage this.

If you are worried about becoming addicted to opioid painkillers, speak to your doctor or nurse. They can explain how the drugs work and how the dose is worked out, and can discuss any concerns you have.

Is there a risk of an overdose on opioid painkillers?

You can take the full dose of the painkiller your doctor has given you without worrying about taking too much (an overdose). It is important that you follow your doctor’s instructions when taking your painkillers, and don’t take more than they have prescribed. If the painkillers don’t control your pain properly, speak to your doctor or nurse so that they can look at your pain relief.

Do not stop taking your opioids without discussing this with your doctor first. Stopping your opioids suddenly can make you feel very unwell.

Will opioid painkillers make me confused or hallucinate?

Some opioid painkillers can cause confusion or sensing things that aren’t there (hallucinations). But if you follow your doctor’s instructions when taking your painkillers, these side effects are unlikely.

Your medical team will regularly check your pain and the painkillers you are taking. They will check any side effects and change the dose or the type of painkiller to help with these side effects. If you are worried about any side effects, speak to your doctor or nurse.

Can I drive if I take opioid painkillers?

Your doctor will tell you whether your painkillers will make you feel sleepy, and if this may affect your driving. You should not drive if you feel sleepy, if you have just started a new type of pain relief, or if you have recently changed the dose of your pain relief.

You are legally allowed to drive when you are taking opioid painkillers, as long as the drug doesn’t affect your ability to drive. You should carry proof that you’ve been given opioids for a medical condition. This might be a copy of your prescription, or the information leaflet that comes with the medicine. The Department for Transport has more information about driving while taking strong painkillers.

Can I drink alcohol while taking strong painkillers?

Alcohol and other medication can affect the way your painkillers work, or cause side effects such as tiredness. If you want to have some alcohol, ask your doctor as this is usually possible.

Do stronger painkillers mean my cancer is getting worse?

Taking a strong painkiller does not mean your cancer is growing or spreading. Lots of different things can affect the pain you feel. The strength of your painkiller can be reduced or increased as your pain gets better or worse. If you are taking strong painkillers it does not mean you will always have to take them.

Worried about opioids?

If you are worried about taking opioid painkillers, speak to your doctor or nurse.

You can speak to our specialist nurses on our free Support Line with any questions about opioids.

Speak to our nurses
Specialist nurse Dianne

Updated February 2019

To be reviewed February 2021