Opioids and Overdose

Opioid medications are mostly used to treat pain, such as pain from an injury, surgery, or cancer.1 When you’re hurt, your body sends pain messages to your brain. Opioids work by blocking these messages.11

Opioids are used frequently, with more than 10% of Canadians having used prescription opioids in 2015.2 Examples of common opioids are codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, morphine and oxycodone.1 There are also illegal opioids, like heroin and prescription opioids that are made or obtained illegally.

Opioids also help release “feel-good” chemicals in the brain. When large amounts of these chemicals are released at once it can cause a short, intense feeling of pleasure and euphoria.1,3 As the effects wear off, people may want to take another dose as soon as possible to get the same feeling again. This can lead to dangerous behaviour and eventually an opioid addiction.

An opioid addiction is a medical condition that makes someone strongly crave opioids. They may want to stop, but it is extremely difficult because it feels like they can’t live without them.3,4


An opioid overdose happens when someone takes more opioids than their body can handle. This can even happen to people who aren’t addicted to opioids. Since opioids act on the part of the brain that controls breathing, if there is too much in the body breathing slows down and can even stop completely, causing death.5

Anyone taking opioids, either prescribed or illegal, may be at risk of an overdose. The risk is much higher if opioids are taken in an unsafe manner. For example5,10:

  • taking more than recommended
  • using someone else's opioids
  • taking opioids with other substances with sedating effects, such as alcohol, sleeping pills, and certain anxiety medications

Rescue treatment

During an overdose, a rescue medication called naloxone can be used to block opioids from working in the body.8 When it is given right away, naloxone can temporarily reverse an opioid overdose, helping people breath normally. This provides time for emergency medical help to arrive.

You can get naloxone as a take-home kit from pharmacies without a prescription.8 These kits are meant to be carried around with you so that you have it handy whenever it is needed - for example, to help someone experiencing an overdose. The kit contains instructions on when and how to use naloxone, and everything you need to give it. Anyone can get a naloxone kit and the pharmacist will teach you how to use it.

You should especially consider getting a kit if you or someone you know5,10:

  • have or had an opioid addiction
  • are using opioids in an unsafe manner
  • are using illegal opioids or ones that were not prescribed to you
  • are using street drugs, even non-opioid ones as they may be contaminated with opioids like fentanyl
  • use opioids and live with children

It is very important to get a naloxone kit if you think you or someone you know may need it. It can save a life during an overdose. If you would like more information or have questions about opioids or naloxone, our pharmacists are more than happy to help.

For more information about Naloxone Kits:

  • ON/QC - Ask your Pharmacist about getting a Free Naloxone Kit today.
  • NS - Ask your Pharmacist about getting a Free Naloxone Injection Kit today. Fees apply to nasal spray kits. Restrictions apply.
  • PEI/NL/NB/MB/SK – Ask your Pharmacist about getting a Naloxone Kit today.
  • AB/BC/YT/NT – Ask your Pharmacist about getting a Free Naloxone Kit today. Restrictions may apply in some provinces.


  1. Government of Canada. (2018). About opioids. Retrieved from: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/problematic-prescription-drug-use/opioids/about.html. Accessed January 2, 2019.
  2. Prescription Opioids (2017). Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. http://www.ccdus.ca/Resource%20Library/CCSA-Canadian-Drug-Summary-Prescription-Opioids-2017-en.pdf. Accessed January 2, 2019.
  3. Mayo Clinic. (2018). How opioid addiction occurs. Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/prescription-drug-abuse/in-depth/how-opioid-addiction-occurs/art-20360372. Accessed January 2, 2019.
  4. Camh. (n.d.). Opioid addiction. Retrieved from: https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/opioid-addiction. Accessed January 2, 2019.
  5. Government of Canada. (2018). Opioid overdose. Retrieved from: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/problematic-prescription-drug-use/opioids/overdose.html. Accessed January 2, 2019.
  6. Public Health Agency of Canada. (2018). National report: Apparent opioid-related deaths in Canada. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/publications/healthy-living/national-report-apparent-opioid-related-deaths-released-september-2018.html. Accessed January 2, 2019.
  7. Government of Canada. (2018). Fentanyl. Retrieved from: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/controlled-illegal-drugs/fentanyl.html. Accessed January 2, 2019.
  8. Government of Canada. (2019). Naloxone. Retrieved from: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/problematic-prescription-drug-use/opioids/naloxone.html
  9. Canadian Pharmacists Association. (2018). Publicly-funded take-home naloxone.
  10. Retrieved from: https://www.pharmacists.ca/cpha-ca/assets/File/cpha-on-the-issues/Naloxone_Scan.pdf. Accessed January 2, 2019.
  11. CMHA (2018). Reducing Harms: Recognizing and Responding to Opioid Overdoses in Your Organization Retrieved from: http://ontario.cmha.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/CMHA-Ontario-Reducing-Harms-Updated.pdf. Accessed January 2, 2019.
  12. American Society of Anesthesiologists. (n.d.). What are opioids. Retrieved from: https://www.asahq.org/whensecondscount/pain-management/opioid-treatment/what-are-opioids/. Accessed January 2, 2019.