A lot of Canadians suffer from pain. Getting your wisdom teeth removed? Healing from a broken leg? Whether the pain is short-term or lasts a bit longer, drugs called opioids are a common way to treat it.
But you may have heard about the risks. Every day, more than 11 Canadians die from opioid misuse and overdose1. How can we make sure these drugs are taken safely?
We're here to help. If you or a family member are prescribed an opioid, we'll help make your experience a smooth one. That way, you can get back on your feet quickly and safely. And feel better.
Opioids are a type of drug that helps treat pain. Some of these drugs are made naturally from the opium plant. Others are synthetic, made in a lab. Doctors may prescribe opioids to help treat pain.
Some opioids that doctors may prescribe:
- Tylenol #3
Opioids can cause a sense of euphoria (feeling high). That leads some people to use them recreationally2. They can also cause drowsiness and constipation. But most importantly, opioids affect the part of the brain that controls breathing. So, if someone takes too much or too strong a dose, they can die2.
If someone uses an opioid for a long time, they may become dependent on it. They may build up a tolerance and need higher doses for the drug to work. If they stop taking the drug, they may go through withdrawal. Withdrawal may involve symptoms like chills, aches, trouble sleeping, and feeling nervous3,4.
Our approach to opioids
About 1 in 5 Canadians suffer from moderate to severe chronic pain5. Opioids are often prescribed to help with that pain. We want to promote the safe and smart use of opioids for new and irregular users. And we want to help protect Canadians’ health and well-being.
Our benefit plans now have a program for opioids. If you're new to opioids or don't use them regularly, we've put an extra safety check at the pharmacy counter.
That means more ways for you, your pharmacist, your doctor, and us to help make sure the treatment is working well.
You and your family, as long as:
- You're covered for drugs under your employer's plan.
- You have a pay-direct drug plan – meaning your pharmacist submits your claims for you at the pharmacy.
- You haven't had opioids in the past 6 months or at all.
If you've been taking opioids regularly to treat a specific medical condition, this program doesn’t affect you. You'll keep getting your medicine as usual.
At all pharmacy counters across Canada, except for in Quebec. The program isn’t available there right now.
If you or a family member are prescribed an opioid, the program starts working.
Here are the 2 big ways we support you.
1. Start with just a 7-day supply.
- Most acute pain resolves in 3-5 days6. So to be on the safe side, the pharmacist dispenses up to 7 days' worth of medication the first time you go to the pharmacy.
By starting you with a short supply, your pharmacist can watch for any early side effects. So you have a lower risk of tolerance and dependence. Shorter prescriptions also mean fewer unused opioids left in households. That means a lower risk to family and the community.
2. Try short-acting opioids first.
- If you're new to opioids, long-acting opioids have a higher risk of dangerous side-effects2,4.
If you don't use opioids regularly, long-acting opioids can be dangerous. They greatly increase the risk of harmful reactions, like trouble breathing. You can also become dependent on them faster and build up a tolerance. For that reason, we ask you to start with a short-acting opioid. Starting with a short-acting opioid can lower your risk of side effects and unneeded long-term use2,4.
With these ways side effects like risk tolerance and dependence get monitored earlier. That helps lower the risk of opioid use over a long time.
Resources and tips
How much do you know about opioids?
From the Government of Canada
Questions to ask your doctor
1 Why the war on opioids will be so hard to win (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-why-the-war-on-opioids-will-be-so-hard-to-win). Globe and Mail, September 25, 2018
2 Opioids (https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids). National Institute on Drug Abuse, United States, June 2018
3 Opioids (https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-opioids). National Institute on Drug Abuse, United States, June 2018
4 Opioids Monograph (https://www.e-therapeutics.ca/search). Canadian Pharmacists Association, September 2018
5 Prevalence of chronic pain among individuals with neurological conditions (https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-003-x/2018003/article/54921-eng.htm). Statistics Canada, March 2018
6 DC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain – United States (https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/pdf/Guidelines_Factsheet-a.pdf). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, March 18, 2016