Opioids for sickle cell pain

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Your child's pain team may recommend opioids to help them manage acute (sudden) or persistent pain. Read about opioids, some of their side effects and how to manage side effects of opioids.

Key points

  • One class of prescription pain relief medicines are opioids. These are strong medicines that must be taken as directed under close supervision.
  • Your child should always take their medications exactly how their health-care providers prescribe them.
  • Always tell your health-care provider about all medications, natural products or recreational drugs your child is taking and whether you or your child would like to stop or change any medications. This helps minimize any side effects and harmful drug interactions.

Opioids are among the oldest, strongest and best-known prescription pain medications. Examples of opioids include morphine, hydromorphone, oxycodone and fentanyl.

There are many types and strengths of opioids—morphine is one of the strongest types—but they are chemically related to the same poppy plant that produces opium.

Opioids are useful and commonly used for acute (sudden) pain, but they may not work as well for chronic (long-term) pain. Your child's pain care team will only start them on daily opioids for persistent pain after talking to you and your child about the risks and benefits.

Side effects of opioids

Common side effects

Common side effects include:

  • constipation
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • itching
  • drowsiness or sleepiness that can sometimes be serious enough to interfere with breathing

Because opioids cause drowsiness, your teen should not drive while taking opioids until they know how opioids might affect them.

Less common but potentially serious side effects

Less common but more serious side effects include:

  • difficulty peeing
  • mood swings
  • vivid dreams
  • mild hallucinations and disorientation (mental confusion)
  • reduced levels of sex hormones (which can affect fertility) from long-term use

In high doses, opioids can sometimes make your child's pain worse instead of better.

How to manage the side effects of opioids

  • Health-care professionals can provide guidance and, if necessary, medications to help your child manage the side effects of opioids. For instance, laxatives can be prescribed to ease constipation, antihistamines can be prescribed for itching or ondansetron can be prescribed for nausea.
  • If your child has a condition that affects their breathing, tell their health-care team so they can help them minimize the breathing-related side effects of opioids.
  • Also always tell your child's health-care team what other medications your child takes in case they may interact with opioids.

If opioids are prescribed for your child's treatment, the amount will depend on your child's weight and how much is needed for effective pain management. Your child's health-care providers will help you keep track of how much medicine your child takes so they stay within safe limits.

Opioids are powerful medications. Even if your child takes them exactly as prescribed and without any of the side effects listed above, they come with a number of risks. These are covered on the next page, Risks of opioids.

Last updated: January 31st 2024