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What is opioid-induced respiratory depression?

Opioids have a tendency to reduce the body’s respiratory drive or our brain’s natural tendency to keep us breathing. This is called respiratory depression or sometimes respiratory suppression

Specifically, opioid medications bind to the cells of the brain called the brainstem that are responsible for stimulating our respiratory drive and suppress them so that the body almost “forgets” to breathe. The higher the dose of opioids consumed, the more of a risk of respiratory depression. 

There are ways to minimize the risk of opioid-induced respiratory depression. Individuals should only take the doses of opioids prescribed by their doctors. They should avoid mixing opioids with other medications that cause sedation, drowsiness, or similar decreases of respiratory drive like muscle relaxers, certain antidepressants, or benzo-diazepines. 

In addition, if an individual is going to take opioids, it is always important to do so around other people who can be alert to watch that individual and make sure they are not too sedated. Narcan should always be prescribed to patients on opioids and available to use in case of an emergency. 

Elena Hill, MD, MPH

Elena Hill, MD; MPH received her MD and Masters of Public Health degrees at Tufts Medical School and completed her family medicine residency at Boston Medical Center. She is currently an attending physician at Bronxcare Health Systems in the Bronx, NY where she works as a primary care physician as well as part time in pain management and integrated health. Her clinical interests include underserved health care, chronic pain and integrated/alternative health.

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