Painkillers – frequently asked questions

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

Questions you may have

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

Some people have concerns or questions about taking painkillers, especially strong ones such as morphine. If you feel like this, it may make you less likely to take the drugs as your doctor prescribes them. This can make it harder to control the pain.

Talk to your doctor or nurse about any concerns you have about painkillers. They are used to talking about these things so it will not be unusual for them. Below are common questions and answers that may help with some of your concerns.

  • When should I start taking painkillers?

    Start taking your painkillers when you have pain. There is no need to delay taking them. 

    Sometimes people think they should delay using painkillers for as long as possible. They may think they should only get help when the pain becomes really bad. Doing this means they are in pain when they do not need to be. It also makes the pain harder to control.

  • If I am given a strong painkiller, does that mean that my cancer is advanced?

    Strong painkillers, such as morphine (an opioid), are often used for severe pain. But morphine can also be given in lower doses for moderate or mild pain.

    Having morphine does not mean the cancer is more serious. The dose can be changed if the pain gets better or worse. If you have a strong painkiller, this does not mean you will always need to take it. If the pain improves, your doctor may change you to a milder painkiller.

  • Is there a maximum dose for strong painkillers?

    There is no maximum dose. If you take them as prescribed, you will not overdose. Never increase the dose without talking to your doctor first. Suddenly increasing the dose is dangerous.

  • Will I become addicted to painkillers?

    Some people worry about becoming addicted to strong painkillers. Talk to your doctor or nurse if you feel like this. If the people close to you have the same concerns, you could ask them to come to an appointment with you.

    Addiction is usually when people without physical pain do not have control over taking drugs. It means they take drugs to the point where it is harmful to them. This is very different to when a doctor prescribes the right dose of a strong painkiller to treat cancer pain.

  • Can I stop taking a strong painkiller?

    If you are taking morphine or another strong painkiller, 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 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 the reach of children. Lock the painkillers away if necessary.
    • Return any unused medicines to the pharmacist who provided them 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?

    This depends on the type of painkiller you are taking. It is best to avoid alcohol if you are taking opioid painkillers. Alcohol can increase side effects, such as drowsiness. Some people may also be taking other drugs that cause drowsiness. Drinking alcohol with milder painkillers is not usually a problem.

  • Can I drive if I am taking 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. If this happens, you should not drive or operate machinery. You may also be taking other drugs for pain control which may make you drowsy and affect driving.

    It is a good idea not to drive for a few days when you start taking strong painkillers or if the dose 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.

  • 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 DVA in Northern Ireland) if you are taking strong painkillers. But they may need to know about your illness.

    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 phone your insurance company.

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

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

    If you are not sure whether you are able to drive, you should not drive. The police can stop people driving and do tests to check whether they have taken any drugs. It is a good idea to carry a copy of your prescription and the packaging the painkillers come in.

  • 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

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our cancer pain information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    Fallon, Giusti, Aielli et al. Management of cancer pain in adult patients: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines. Annals of Oncology. 2018. 29: 166–191. 

    O'Brien, Christrup, Drewes, et al. European Pain Federation position paper on appropriate opioid use in chronic pain management. European Journal of Pain. 2017. 21: 3-19.  


  • 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 and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Viv Lucas, 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.