How to Take Painkiller Drugs Safely

Man taking medicine
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If your doctor has prescribed you painkillers, you should be aware that pain drugs can be safe. Pain-relieving drugs, whether they are prescription or non-prescription, can help you feel better. But for a variety of reasons, painkillers can be dangerous, too.

As you're probably aware, some people become dependent on painkillers or addicted to painkillers. Other dangers and side effects include stomach upset, dizziness, blurred vision, and liver damage. If they're taken incorrectly, painkillers can even cause death.

Learn how these problems occur and the steps you can take to prevent them so you can be sure that your painkillers are safe.

  • Read the labels and precautions

  • Take your medication as directed

  • Watch for side effects or interactions

  • Forget to tell your doctor about other meds you're taking

  • Take more than the recommended dose

  • Take other pain relievers as well

Problems With Painkiller Prescriptions

Even if you strictly follow the instructions, sometimes problems with painkillers can arise for the following reasons:

  • Other medications. Your new pain drug prescription may conflict with a drug you already take. It's possible that every drug or supplement you take hasn't been recorded in the prescribing doctor's records, or he or she may have overlooked a potentially conflicting drug. Or, you may have forgotten to mention a supplement you take that conflicts with the prescription.
  • An allergic reaction. You may have an allergy to an ingredient in a pain drug that hasn't shown up before.
  • Your tolerance. You may be opiate naive, which means that your body is not used to opioids and does not tolerate them well. 
  • Pharmacy error. When you purchase the drug at your pharmacy, they may accidentally give you the wrong drug or the wrong dose.
  • Counterfeit pills. This is a growing issue, particularly with internet pharmacies. Your pharmacy may sell you a counterfeit version of a drug without realizing it.

Common Painkiller Safety Mistakes

It's important to always follow the directions about how a painkilling drug should be taken.

Mistakes can lead to difficult symptoms, temporary or permanent health damage, addiction, dependency or even death.

Here are some of the mistakes people make with painkillers that can cause problems:

  • Taking the drug incorrectly can mean you either end up with too much of the drug in your system, or too little.
  • Taking drugs with other drugs can cause drug conflicts or contraindications.
  • Not taking the drug with food, or vice versa can make you sick, depending on the directions.
  • Taking the next dose too soon can mean you overdose. Doing that frequently can lead to dependence and/or addiction.
  • Using a second pain reliever may lead to toxic levels.
  • Waiting too long between doses may allow pain to breakthrough, or you may have withdrawal symptoms.
  • Eating or drinking some foods and beverages can interfere with pain drugs. This can lead to gastrointestinal symptoms and can even be dangerous. Alcohol, in particular, can be highly dangerous when mixed with many pain drugs. But even something seemingly benign like grapefruit juice can interfere with the pain-killing effect of your drugs.
  • Abruptly stopping an opiate drug can cause withdrawal symptoms like an increased heart rate, profuse sweating or anxiety.

Taking Painkillers Safely

Making sure that your painkillers are safe begins from the moment your doctor writes you a prescription or you make a choice off the shelf in the drug store. It's your responsibility to take these steps to keep yourself safe:

  1. Be sure to read the labels and inserts when you purchase an over-the-counter pain reliever (like aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen) or a prescription drug. These materials will warn you about everything from drug interactions to food interactions to possible damage from extended use. Use a magnifying glass to read them if necessary. If a painkiller you have been prescribed is new to the market, you should learn about the important steps to consider before you take a new drug.
  2. Remind your doctor about your other medications. If your doctor writes you a prescription, speak up about the other drugs and supplements you already take. Don't rely on your medical records because the information may be incomplete or your doctor could miss it.
  3. Ask the prescriber lots of questions. You'll find a master list of general prescription questions here. Some of them are specific to pain-killing drugs. It's important to ask things like: Is it OK to drive on this drug? Can I consume alcohol while I'm taking this drug? And what steps can I take to avoid becoming dependent on or addicted to this drug?
  4. Find out which side effects are concerning. Once you begin taking the drug, you may experience side effects. Ask your doctor which side effects he wants to be informed about immediately. Vomiting profusely should probably be reported right away, for example, while dry mouth might be something you just have to live with. Be extra vigilant about side effects if you have not taken painkillers before because your body won't be used to them.
  5. Follow the directions for taking the drug exactly as prescribed. If you find your pain breaks through before it's time for the next dose, don't just go ahead and take it early. Instead, contact your doctor's office and ask what you should do. They may adjust the dose accordingly.
  6. Never just stop taking a painkilling drug on your own. Withdrawal is a nasty process and there are different ways to step down your dosage to make it easier on your body. If you feel it's time to give up your painkiller, speak to your doctor and ask about the best way to wean yourself off the drug.
  7. Consider keeping a journal of your experience with the drugs you take. You may be taking painkillers for a period of time, especially if you have been badly hurt in an accident, or if you have developed a chronic pain disease. This is a good time to start a medication journal. Rate your pain against your pain drugs, doses, times of day, foods you eat and anything else that may factor in. If problems occur, you may be able to pinpoint when and why they began. Share your journal with your doctor, too.
  8. Finally, never take someone else's prescription pain drugs. They weren't prescribed for you, and you can't know whether they will conflict with some other drug, supplement, beverage, or food you have consumed. Further, with advances in technology, like the use of databases to track who has been prescribed certain drugs, you may be caught—which will leave you with no legal way to get the medications you need.

Consider Alternatives to Painkillers

There may be other ways to relieve your pain that will work instead of, or in conjunction with, painkillers. You might consider complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) options or mind-body approaches to controlling pain. Or, read more about how to relieve pain without drugs.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Misuse of Prescription Pain Relievers: The Buzz Takes Your Breath Away . . . Permanently. Updated January 10, 2018.

  2. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Drug Interactions: What You Should Know. Updated September 25, 2013.

  3. American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Drug allergies. Updated February 28, 2018.

  4. Blackstone EA, Fuhr JP, Pociask S. The health and economic effects of counterfeit drugs. Am Health Drug Benefits. 2014;7(4):216-224.

  5. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. A Guide to Safe Use of Pain Medicine. Updated February 9, 2009.

  6. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Harmful Interactions. 2014.

  7. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. What to Ask Your Doctor Before Taking Opioids. Updated October 31, 2019.

By Trisha Torrey
Trisha Torrey is a patient empowerment and advocacy consultant. She has written several books about patient advocacy and how to best navigate the healthcare system.