What should I ask my doctor or pharmacist about a prescription?

In 2016, about 215 million painkiller prescriptions were issued, enough for nearly every adult in the country to have a bottle of pills. Sales of opioid painkillers have quadrupled since 1999—and so have the number of overdose deaths from these drugs.

Prescription painkillers can be helpful and beneficial for treating pain, but they can also be highly addictive and susceptible to abuse and misuse. It’s important to understand the prescription painkiller you’re being prescribed, how it can help you, its risks, and how to properly take it. Here are some questions to ask your doctor or pharmacist when he or she prescribes or dispenses a medication:

  • Are there any non-drug alternatives?
  • What does the medication do?
  • Why are you suggesting this particular prescription?
  • How, when, and for how long should I take it?
  • What are the side effects? Are they minor or major? Are they common?
  • What are the risks?
  • Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
  • Is it addictive?
  • Is this dosage specific for me, or is it a one-dose-fits-all dosage?
  • Can I start out at a lower dosage and adjust if needed?
  • Is there anything I should avoid eating or drinking while taking this medication?
  • How will this medication interact with other medications I’m taking?
  • Will this medication affect my ability to safely drive, operate heavy machinery, or engage in other activities?
  • What should I do if I miss a dose or take a dose incorrectly?
  • How should I store my medication and how long can I keep it? (See Safe Storage for additional information.)

Remember, there are effective painkillers available that are not opioids. Talk with your medical professional or your pharmacist about whether you should consider alternatives available to you and your family.

You should also be cautious about where you obtain prescription opioids. Many websites that claim to be online pharmacies are actually selling counterfeit or adulterated drugs or operating unsafely. In one review of online pharmacies, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) found that 96% appeared to be operating in conflict with the law and other pharmacy standards. The NABP has developed tips for safely buying medications.