Common questions about painkillers

If you are unsure or worried about taking painkillers, speak to your doctor. It can help to read answers to common questions about painkillers before you start taking them.

Questions you may have

If you are unsure or worried about taking painkillers, speak to your doctor. It can help to read answers to common questions about painkillers before you start taking them.

Some people have concerns about pain relief medicines, especially strong painkillers like morphine. If you are worried about the drugs you have been prescribed, you may be less likely to take your pain relief medicines. This can make it harder to control the pain.

Talk to your doctor or nurse about any concerns you have and ask them any questions you want to. Your healthcare team is used to talking about these things. There are no silly questions. And being able to talk through your concerns will probably help you feel more comfortable about taking the drugs.

Below are some questions and answers that may help with some of your concerns.

  • When should I start taking painkillers?

    Start taking your painkillers as prescribed by your doctor, when you have pain. Sometimes people think they should delay using painkillers for as long as possible. But there is no need to delay taking them. 

    If you wait until the pain gets really bad, it will be harder to get the pain under control. It also means you will be in pain when you do not need to be.

  • Does taking a strong painkiller mean the cancer is advanced?

    Doctors use strong painkillers (such as morphine, an opioid), to treat severe pain from other causes as well as cancer. They sometimes use strong painkillers for moderate or mild pain.

    Having morphine does not mean the cancer is more serious.

    The important thing is that you have the right painkiller in the right dose to treat your pain.

    If your pain improves, your doctor or specialist palliative care nurse may reduce the dose or change you to a milder painkiller.

  • Is there a maximum dose for strong painkillers?

    There is no maximum dose for strong painkillers. The right dose is the one that works for you. 

    If you have pain, do not increase the dose without talking to your doctor or specialist palliative care nurse first. Suddenly increasing the dose is dangerous. If you take your painkillers as prescribed, you will not overdose.

  • Will I become addicted to painkillers?

    Addiction is rare when a strong painkiller is used correctly to relieve cancer pain as prescribed by your doctor. If the painkiller is helping to relieve your pain, you are unlikely to become addicted to it.

    If you are worried about becoming addicted, talk to your doctor or specialist nurse. If your family and friends are also concerned, you could ask them to come to an appointment with you.

  • Can I stop taking a strong painkiller?

    If your pain improves, you may be able to reduce and then stop taking a strong painkiller. But it is important that you do not suddenly stop taking it. Talk to your doctor first. They will explain if it is a good idea to reduce your dose. They will also tell you how to do this gradually to avoid pain and withdrawal problems.

    Signs of withdrawal include:

    • diarrhoea
    • cramping pains in the stomach and bowel
    • sickness
    • sweating
    • feeling restless or agitated.
  • How can I remember when to take my painkillers?
    • Make taking your medicines part of your daily routine – maybe by taking them after meals, depending on the instructions.
    • Set an alarm on your mobile phone or computer to remind you.
    • Write a note in a notebook that you keep nearby.
    • Ask your partner, relative or friend to remind you to take them.
    • Use a pain diary to help you keep track of when to take your drugs.
  • What is a pill organiser?

    You may find it easier to have your drugs arranged in a blister pack or in a dosette box. These have separate compartments which clearly show the day and time when you should take your medicines. Your GP may be able to organise this with your pharmacist. You can also buy your own medicine container boxes (pill organisers) from most pharmacies.

  • How should I store my painkillers?

    It is important to store painkillers carefully.

    • Check the date has not expired.
    • Keep them in their original bottle or packet where you can clearly read the label.
    • Keep them in a cool, dry place.
    • Keep them out of sight and reach of children. You might want to lock away strong painkillers.
    • Return any unused medicines to a pharmacy (chemist) so they can dispose of them properly. Do not put them in the bin or down the toilet.
  • Can I drink alcohol if I am taking painkillers?

    If you are taking strong painkillers, you can usually drink small amounts of alcohol. This is around 1 or 2 units per day. Some people find it has a stronger effect on them and makes them feel unwell.

    It may be best to avoid alcohol if you can.

    Drinking alcohol with milder painkillers is not usually a problem.

    Your painkillers will have a patient information leaflet. This will have information about alcohol. You can also ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist for more information about the painkillers you are taking.

  • Can I drive if I am taking strong painkillers?

    When you first start taking strong painkillers, they may make you feel tired and drowsy. You may not be able to concentrate and your reactions may be slow. You may also be taking other drugs for pain which can make you drowsy and affect driving.

    You should not drive or operate machinery for a few days:

    • when you start taking strong painkillers
    • if your dose of painkiller has been increased.

    If you are not drowsy and you feel able to drive after this, you should be okay to drive. Do not drive immediately after taking an extra (breakthrough) dose of a strong painkiller.

    Keep your first drive short and easy. Take another driver with you in case you feel drowsy while you are out. If you are worried that you may not be safe to drive, ask your doctor for advice.

  • Do I have to tell the DVLA, DVA or my insurance company if I am taking painkillers?

    You do not have to tell the DVLA or the DVA in Northern Ireland if you are taking strong painkillers. But they may need to know about your cancer. Your doctor or specialist nurse can give you more information.

    It is a good idea to tell your insurance company if your ability to drive may be affected. Each company is different, but your insurance may not be valid if you do not tell them. Make sure you know what your doctor’s advice is before you contact your insurance company.

  • Will I be breaking the law if I drive while I am taking strong painkillers?

    You may be prosecuted if you have drugs in your body that affect your driving, even if you have been prescribed the drugs.

    It is an offence to drive with certain drugs above certain limits in your body. This includes some prescription medicines. You will not be breaking the law if the painkillers are not affecting your ability to drive safely, and you are:

    • taking them exactly as your doctor prescribed them and
    • following the information that came with the painkillers.

    The police can stop people who are driving and do tests to check whether they have taken any drugs. It is a good idea to keep a copy of your prescription with you, as well as the painkillers’ packaging.

    If you are not sure whether you are able to drive, you should not drive. Your doctor, specialist nurse or pharmacist can tell you more about this.

  • Can I travel with my painkillers?

    Some countries limit the amount of particular drugs that can be taken into the country. There are restrictions about taking drugs like morphine into some countries.

    We have more information about taking medicines abroad.

About our information

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by our Senior Medical Editor, Dr Ollie Minton, Macmillan Consultant in Palliative Medicine.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 August 2022
Next review: 01 August 2025
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

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