Taking analgesics—a few precautions for safe use

Pain relievers are among the most commonly used medications. It is easy to trivialize their use, but taking them requires precautions.

Analgesics: what are they?

By definition, analgesics are drugs that relieve physical pain. Some also reduce inflammation (anti-inflammatory properties) or fight fever (antipyretic properties). They can be sold by prescription or over the counter.

The following medications fall into the category of pain relievers:

  • acetaminophen
  • aspirin
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAID (ibuprofen, naproxen, diclofenac, celecoxib, etc.)
  • opioids (codeine, morphine, hydromorphone, oxycodone, fentanyl, methadone, tramadol, etc.)

The risks of adverse effects

Like any medication, pain relievers can cause adverse effects. Their safety profile differs from one agent to another. Acetaminophen is safe when used in recommended doses, but its use is not without risk. Aspirin, on the other hand, is being used less and less for pain because its safety profile makes it less appealing than other available products.

Analgesics often have a fairly consistent adverse effect profile. In the case of NSAIDs, these are mainly digestive adverse effects, such as stomach upset, reflux, nausea and constipation. Opioid analgesics cause dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, and constipation. However, each person reacts differently, and many different adverse effects are possible. It is important to note that it is possible to be allergic to a pain reliever.

Your pharmacist can tell you about the main adverse effects associated with pain relievers.

The risk of drug interactions

When several medications are combined, there is a risk that some of them may interact. This may be of no consequence, but a drug interaction can cause, for example:

  • an increased risk of adverse effects or drug toxicity
  • a different response to the drug than expected
  • a decrease in the effectiveness of one of the drugs

When taking a pain reliever, ask your pharmacist about the risk of drug interactions. Make sure you always have a complete and up-to-date list of your medications, including over-the-counter and natural health products.

The risk of overdose or drug poisoning

Pain relievers are considered safe when taken in recommended doses. Some people may take them in too large quantities or too often for various reasons, including lack of knowledge or carelessness. An overdose of pain relievers can have various consequences, sometimes serious, depending on the medication involved.

Take the example of acetaminophen. When used properly, this pain reliever is effective and safe. However, when used in high doses, it can cause severe liver damage and even death. Many cases of acetaminophen-related drug poisoning are reported each year in Canada. Make sure you never exceed the maximum recommended daily dose.

Vulnerable people, such as children, teenagers and the elderly, are particularly at risk of overdose or drug poisoning. Medications should always be kept out of sight and out of reach of children and anyone else deemed to be at greater risk.

The risk of misuse, overuse and addiction

Some people sometimes turn to medication for effects other than therapeutic purposes. The search for effects such as euphoria (high) or relaxation may lead them to make irrational use of certain medications.

For example, some preparations, such as those containing opioids, are appealing to people who want to use the drugs recreationally. Needless to say, this has serious health and other consequences.

Opioid analgesics are particularly addictive when overused or used over a long period of time. Once addiction is established, some individuals find it very difficult to break the habit. It is important to be aware of the risks of addiction with any medication.

Other contraindications, warnings and precautions

For each analgesic available on the market, there are some specific contraindications, warnings and precautions that are not discussed in detail in this text. Depending on your age, health (diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, etc.) and personal characteristics (pregnancy, breastfeeding, employment, family or personal history, previous allergy or intolerance to a drug, etc.), a particular pain reliever may not be suitable for you.

As a medication expert, your pharmacist can help you determine whether you should refrain from taking certain pain relievers.


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Taking analgesics—a few precautions for safe use

Analgesics are among the most commonly consumed medications, all categories combined. Therefore, it can be easy to trivialize their use. Yet, as is the case for all medication, the use of analgesics must coincide with certain precautions.
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