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Opioids are strong pain medicines. They can be taken by mouth, as an injection (shot), through a patch, or in a vein (IV). There are different types of opioids, and some are stronger than others. Common opioids include hydrocodone (Vicodin®), morphine, hydromorphone (Dilaudid®), oxycodone, fentanyl, and methadone.

Why might my child take opioids?

Your child might have pain from surgery, their cancer or other disease, or their medical treatment. Doctors prescribe opioids if:

  • Your child’s pain is moderate to severe, and other medicines do not control it, or
  • Your child cannot take other pain medicines at that time.

Opioids do not completely relieve pain, and opioids do not work for all types of pain. Your doctor may prescribe other medicine or other ways of handling pain.

What are the possible side effects of opioids?

Opioids can cause many different side effects.

Common side effects

  • Nausea
  • Itching
  • Dizziness or confusion
  • Difficulty urinating (peeing)
  • Constipation (difficulty having a bowel movement)
  • Difficulty driving or using machinery
  • Harm to an unborn child

Less common side effects

  • Slow breathing
  • Allergic reaction
  • Acting different, sleepy, or slow
  • Addiction or improper use of the medicine

Will my child become addicted to opioids?

About addiction

Addiction is when you want to use a medicine in ways other than how the doctor prescribed it. For example, you might take it to feel “high,” instead of to control pain. Addiction can also happen with street drugs or other substances.

Some teens and young adults with cancer have misused opioid medicines. Researchers also know that people who took opioid medicines before age 18 are more likely to become addicted later. So, addiction is one (1) possible risk of taking opioid medicines.

About dependence

Dependence is when your body gets used to a medicine or other substance. Opioids are a type of drug that the body gets used to having. It is normal to get used to opioids if you take them for more than a few days. So your child’s body might feel like it needs opioids after a short time. The dose that worked before might not work as well.

Dependence is different from addiction. Addiction is in a person’s mind and emotions as well as their physical body.

If your child does take opioid medicines, the St. Jude team will help lower the dose safely when it is time.

Opioids and pregnancy

If a woman becomes pregnant while taking opioids, the baby could be born dependent on opioids. It might also have health problems. Avoid pregnancy if you are taking opioids, and see a doctor right away if you become pregnant while taking opioid medicines. See your doctor about ways to avoid pregnancy, if needed.

Deciding about opioids

Having your child take opioid medicines is a serious decision because of these risks. You should talk about the risks with your child’s doctor. Also talk with your child if they are old enough. The St. Jude staff might ask you to sign a document called “informed consent,” showing that you know and understand the risks.

You should also know that managing pain is an essential part of your child’s treatment. Pain that is not controlled can harm your child.

What should I watch out for if my child takes opioids?

Your doctor uses information from you to learn if opioid medicines are still working well for your child. Please take notes on the following questions and tell your child’s doctor the answers.

  • How much is my child’s pain under control?
  • Does my child have any side effects since they started taking opioids?
  • Do they show any signs of misusing the opioid medicine?

The information below tells you about signs of misusing opioids.

What are the signs of opioid misuse?

Changes in daily behavior

  • Doing fewer daily activities
  • Hoarding opioid medicines or other drugs
  • Reporting pain when they seem comfortable
  • Getting upset when talking about taking a lower dose or taking opioids less often

Changes in taking medicine

  • Taking a different dose, taking medicine more often, or taking opioids with other medicines the doctor did not prescribe
  • Taking other medicines or substances for pain, or using opioid medicines for problems other than pain, such as feeling anxious or having sleep problems
  • Taking too much on purpose to calm down or go to sleep
  • Saying they want to feel “high” from the medicine

Changes in doctor visits and prescription use

  • Asking several doctors for opioid medicines, or asking for these medicines at an urgent care clinic or emergency department
  • Calling the doctor’s office often for prescriptions, or trying to get a prescription without making an appointment
  • Saying the opioid medicines were lost or stolen
  • Having fewer pills left than they should have if they are following the doctor’s prescription
  • Asking for specific opioid medicines by name
  • Wanting to keep taking opioids at the same or a higher dose

Illegal behavior

  • Using drugs or prescription medicines in secret
  • Stealing or selling prescription drugs
  • Getting opioid medicines from a drug dealer or someone else who is not a doctor

How should I store opioid medicines?

Store opioid medicines carefully. You should keep them in a safe, lockbox, or locked cabinet at home or in St. Jude housing. Or you might put them where they are not easy to find. Always keep opioids and other medicines out of reach of children to avoid poisoning. You might want to keep opioids with you when you are not home or in St. Jude housing. For example, you might carry them in your purse instead of leaving them home near your child.

Please bring your child’s opioid medicines to any doctor’s appointments where you discuss managing pain. The staff might check and count the pills with you.


What should I do with medicine we do not use?

You can put opioids in the MedSafe container near the Outpatient Pharmacy window. Or you can pick up an envelope at the Pharmacy to send opioids back to St. Jude.

You may also throw away opioid medicines. To throw them away, mix them with used coffee grounds, used cat litter, or something else no one would want to eat. Put the mixture in a sealed plastic container and throw it in your trash.

Please do not save your child’s medicine “just in case.” Someone might find it and use it wrongly. If your child needs strong pain medicines again, the doctor can prescribe the best option. Also, do not give opioids to someone else. This is against the law. It could also hurt the person you give them to.


If you have questions about opioids, please talk to your child’s doctor, nurse, or pharmacist. If you are inside the hospital, dial 0. In the local area, call 901-595-3300. If you are outside the Memphis area, dial toll-free 1-866-2STJUDE (1-866-278-5833).


This document is not intended to take the place of the care and attention of your personal physician or other professional medical services. Our aim is to promote active participation in your care and treatment by providing information and education. Questions about individual health concerns or specific treatment options should be discussed with your physician.

St. Jude complies with health care-related federal civil rights laws and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex.

ATTENTION: If you speak another language, assistance services, free of charge, are available to you. Call 1-866-278-5833 (TTY: 1-901-595-1040).

ATENCIÓN: si habla español, tiene a su disposición servicios gratuitos de asistencia lingüística. Llame al 1-866-278-5833 (TTY: 1-901-595-1040).

تنبيه: إذا كنت تتحدث باللغة العربية فيمكنك الاستعانة بخدمات المساعدة اللغوية المتوفرة لك مجانا. .يرجى الاتصال بالرقم. 5833-278-866-1  (الهاتف النصي: 1040-595-901-1).