Meds and you

Updated 23 March 2017

Dependence can start within days of opioid use

According to researchers, the chances of opioid dependence increase with each day of use and increase substantially after five days or more.


Opioids effectively reduce the intensity of pain signals to the brain – however they quickly become addictive and contribute to the thousands of deaths from painkiller use worldwide every year

Risk rises every day

"The chances of long-term opioid use start increasing with each additional day supplied and increase substantially after someone is prescribed five or more days," said senior researcher Martin Bradley. He is from the division of pharmaceutical evaluation and policy at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

The odds of chronic opioid use also increase when a second prescription is given or refilled, he noted.

Patients need to discuss the use of narcotic painkillers when they are prescribed, Bradley said.

"Prescribers should be cautious about what they prescribe, and they should educate patients that if they are going to prescribe opioids, there is a likelihood that patients will have an opioid dependence," said Dr Scott Krakower. He is assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital, in Glen Oaks, New York.

Opioid use in South Africa

There is however hope for people who are addicted to opioids and a recent study found that buprenorphine, an anti-addiction drug given in the ER to reduce cravings appears to be an effective option to combat opioid abuse.

The 2012 World Drug Report warns that experts have noted an increase in heroin use in Africa. It estimates that the prevalence for opioid use in 2010 in South Africa was between 0.31 and 0.5% of the adult population.

Given the dangers of opioids, doctors should first think about using non-narcotic pain medications, Krakower suggested.

He believes that patients who need a narcotic should be given one. "The problem is that so many patients were prescribed opioids, and the odds of becoming dependent are very high." 

Kicking dependence takes years 

"If your doctor is going to prescribe an opioid, be educated about what it can potentially do," Krakower said.

The report was published in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Drug overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999. More than six out of 10 overdose deaths involve opioid drugs, according to the CDC. Ninety-one people die every day in America from prescription opioids or heroin, the agency says.

Prescriptions for opioids have nearly quadrupled since 1999 even though there's been no overall change in Americans' reported pain levels, according to the CDC. Opioid prescription statistics for South Africa are unfortunately not available. 

Read More:

Opioid painkillers raise cardiovascular complications

Intervention to combat misuse of opioid painkillers

Opioid Dependence – is something we should all know about