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Buprenorphine

9-minute read

If a person is not breathing, or if they are unresponsive, seek help straight away. Call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Key facts

  • Buprenorphine is an opioid medicine available on prescription from your doctor.
  • Buprenorphine is used for the treatment of severe pain. It is also used in treatment plans for heroin dependence (and other opioid dependence).
  • Like other opioid pain medicines, buprenorphine should only be used for pain relief when other treatment options are ineffective or not well tolerated.
  • Buprenorphine is associated with potentially serious side effects and should be used under the close supervision of your doctor.

What is buprenorphine?

Buprenorphine is an opioid medicine that is available on prescription from your doctor.

LOOKING FOR A MEDICINE? — See this list of medicines that contain buprenorphine to find out more about a specific medication.

What is buprenorphine used for?

Buprenorphine is prescribed for the medical treatment of people with an opioid drug dependence, such as a dependency on heroin or other opioid medicines. Buprenorphine can help people safely withdraw from the opioid medicine they are dependent on.

Buprenorphine can also be prescribed for the short-term treatment of severe, acute pain. Because of the risks associated with the use of opioids, buprenorphine should only be used when your doctor decides that other treatment options are not able to effectively manage your pain or you cannot tolerate them.

How does buprenorphine work?

Buprenorphine works to reduce feelings of pain by interrupting the way nerves signal pain between the brain and the body.

When buprenorphine replaces other opioids, it helps reduce the negative effects of withdrawal, and reduces the harm associated with drug use. In this way, buprenorphine makes it easier for people to stop their harmful drug use.

Buprenorphine comes in several forms:

  • sublingual tablets and film — placed under the tongue for quick absorption and rapid action
  • transdermal patches — placed on the skin for slow steady release and a continuous effect
  • injection — modified release injection under the skin, administered weekly or monthly

What are the possible side effects of taking buprenorphine?

Like all opioid medicines, buprenorphine can cause life-threatening breathing problems. The risk of these is higher:

  • when first taking buprenorphine
  • after a dosage increase
  • if you are older
  • if you have an existing lung problem

Other common side effects of buprenorphine include:

Buprenorphine affects everyone differently and your likelihood of experiencing side effects is based on several factors. These include whether you are a regular user of buprenorphine, if you take it with other drugs or medicines, your dosage, how much you weigh and your general health.

If you experience any of these side effects while taking buprenorphine, or are concerned about your drug use, speak with your doctor, as you may need a dosage adjustment.

Always take medicines exactly as your doctor prescribes.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

What are the risks associated with buprenorphine?

Buprenorphine is an opioid medicine and can cause life-threatening breathing problems. It’s also important that you do not stop taking it abruptly.

If you decide you want to stop taking buprenorphine, speak with your doctor about how to gradually reduce your dosage — this will help minimise any difficult withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal symptoms usually peak in the first few days after stopping buprenorphine but may continue for several weeks. These include:

Buprenorphine may make it difficult for you to drive or operate heavy machinery. If you have recently started taking an opioid medication or changed dosage, you may be at a higher risk of having an accident.

WORRIED ABOUT YOUR OPIOID USE? — The Opioid Risk Indicator can help you find out if you may be developing a problem.

There are other factors that may limit your use of buprenorphine — for example, if you drink alcohol or take other medicines that can cause drowsiness.

Your doctor is the best person to advise you on whether morphine is the right medicine for you, how much you need and how long to take it for.

If a person is not breathing, or if they are unresponsive, seek help straight away. Call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Access to overdose-reversing medication

Naloxone is a medicine that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. A pilot program, funded by the Australian Government, is offering certain individuals in New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia this medication (including the nasal spray Nyxoid), free of charge and without a prescription.

Learn more here about the take home naloxone pilot.

Are there any alternatives to buprenorphine?

Both buprenorphine and methadone are used to help treat opioid dependence or misuse. Your doctor will help you decide which is the best option for you.

Everyone’s pain is different and various pain-relief medicines are used in different circumstances. If you’ve been prescribed buprenorphine and have concerns or are experiencing side effects, speak with your doctor about other ways you can manage your pain.

If you have chronic (long-term) pain, your doctor might suggest lifestyle changes to help manage the discomfort. This may include physical fitness and activity pacing, social activities, relaxation techniques and overall health management.

You find more information here about options for managing chronic pain.

When should I see my doctor?

If your pain is not being controlled with buprenorphine or you have any unexpected side effects, see your doctor.

Always check with your doctor before adjusting your dosage either up or down.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Pain Question Planner to prepare for your doctor’s appointment.

How do I dispose of medicines safely?

It’s important you dispose of unwanted opioid medicines safely — unused medicines can be returned to any pharmacy. Don't keep unused buprenorphine 'just in case', since this can lead to inappropriate use.

Dispose of a used buprenorphine patch by folding it over on itself (bringing the adhesive sides together).

Keep buprenorphine out of reach of children and pets. Never throw medicines into a garbage bin or flush them down the toilet, since this is dangerous to others and harmful to the environment.

Resources and support

Asking about your treatment or medication is important to help you understand your options. Here's a guide to questions to ask your pharmacist or doctor before taking a medicine.

You can also see this list of medicines that contain buprenorphine to read the consumer medicines information (CMI) leaflet for the brand prescribed, or:

  • Call the NPS MedicineWise Medicines Line (1300 633 424) to talk about the medicines you are taking for your pain.
  • Discuss your pain on the Pain Link helpline (1300 340 357) which is staffed by volunteers with personal experience of chronic pain.
  • Go to Painaustralia to find pain services and programs in your area.
  • Learn more about prescription opioids on ScriptWise

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2021


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