Common concerns about opioid painkillers

People have often heard stories about opioid painkillers, 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. Some people worry there will not be a stronger painkiller available if they need it later. But there are many options, so it is important to take your painkillers or increase the dose when prescribed. 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 dose is worked out, and can discuss your concerns.

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. Tell them about any side effects so they can help you to manage them.

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. Your doctor or nurse can tell you how long to avoid driving for.

You are legally allowed to drive when you are taking prescribed opioid painkillers, as long as they don’t affect your ability to drive and you are taking them as instructed. You should carry proof that you have been given opioids for a medical condition, for example, a copy of your prescription. The Department for Transport has more information about driving while taking strong painkillers.

“ Keep persisting until you receive all the advice and support you need. There’s no such thing as a silly question and sometimes if you don’t ask you don’t get.”

Can I drink alcohol while taking strong painkillers?

Alcohol and other medicines 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 April 2022

To be reviewed April 2025