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Why can prescription painkillers be dangerous?

Deaths from prescription painkillers—opioid or narcotic pain relievers, including drugs such as Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin (oxycodone), Opana (oxymorphone), and methadone—have reached epidemic levels in the past decade. The number of overdose deaths is now greater than those of deaths from heroin and cocaine combined.

Although prescription painkillers can be beneficial in reducing pain for carefully selected and monitored patients, they can also be as dangerous and deadly as illegal drugs when used for nonmedical reasons. Prescription painkillers work by binding to receptors in the brain to decrease the perception of pain. These powerful drugs can create a feeling of euphoria, cause physical dependence, and, in some people, lead to addiction. Prescription painkillers also cause sedation and slow down a person’s breathing.

A person who is abusing prescription painkillers might take larger doses—or combine these drugs with other prescription or illegal drugs or alcohol—to achieve a euphoric effect or to reduce withdrawal symptoms. This can cause breathing to slow down so much that breathing stops, resulting in a fatal overdose.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.