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Hydromorphone

6-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

  • Hydromorphone is a potent opioid-based pain medicine that can only be prescribed by your doctor.
  • Hydromorphone is prescribed for the short-term relief of severe pain, where other pain-relief medicines have been ineffective or cannot be used.
  • Hydromorphone is not the same as morphine — it is much more potent. Take care not to confuse the two.
  • Always take hydromorphone exactly as prescribed by your doctor.
  • Don’t stop taking hydromorphone suddenly since you may experience withdrawal effects.

What is hydromorphone?

Hydromorphone is an opioid pain medicine available on prescription from your doctor. It is categorised as a 'potent' opioid.

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

What is hydromorphone used for?

Hydromorphone is used for the short-term relief of severe pain, where other pain medicines have been ineffective or cannot be used. It is more potent than morphine and should only be used under specialist medical supervision.

Hydromorphone should also be used only when other forms of pain relief have not been successful in managing pain.

How does hydromorphone work?

Hydromorphone works directly on opioid receptors in the central nervous system, and reduces feelings of pain by interrupting the way nerves signal pain between the brain and the body.

It is available as tablets, an oral liquid or injections.

Hydromorphone should only be used in limited circumstances under specialist medical care.

What are the possible side effects of taking hydromorphone?

All opioids, including hydromorphone, can have side effects that include life-threatening breathing problems. The risk of these is higher:

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

The side effects of hydromorphone are similar to those of other opioids, and include:

Hydromorphone affects everyone differently, so if your pain is not well managed while taking hydromorphone, or if you notice your medicines are making you feel unwell, speak with your pharmacist or doctor.

Always take medicines exactly as prescribed by your doctor.

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

What are the risks associated with hydromorphone?

Opioids are strong pain-relief medicines and can cause life-threatening breathing problems.

People who take hydromorphone may become reliant on this medicine if they take it regularly, even after a short period of time.

People can also develop tolerance when they take hydromorphone — this means they need to take larger amounts of the opioid to get the same effect. As the dosage increases, so does the risk of side effects.

If you stop taking hydromorphone suddenly, you may experience withdrawal symptoms.

Hydromorphone 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 higher risk of having an accident.

If you have kidney problems or your kidney function is impaired, your doctor will need to adjust your dosage of hydromorphone.

There are other factors that may limit your use of hydromorphone — 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 hydromorphone 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 hydromorphone?

Remember that everyone's pain is unique and different pain-relief medicines will work in different circumstances. Some people's pain will respond well to non-opioid medicines, and you may find that one opioid helps you manage your pain better and with fewer side effects than another.

Hydromorphone is not the same as morphine — it is much more potent, which means it can be much more dangerous if taken inappropriately. Take care not to confuse hydromorphone with morphine.

Hydromorphone may be prescribed by your doctor, however, if you were troubled by the adverse effects of morphine.

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

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

When should I see my doctor?

If your pain is not well controlled on hydromorphone, or you have any unexpected side effects, see your doctor.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

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 hydromorphone 'just in case' since this can lead to inappropriate use.

Keep hydromorphone out of reach of children and pets. Never throw medicines into a garbage bin or flush them down the toilet — 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.

See also this list of medicines that contain hydromorphone to read the consumer medicine 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 telephone helpline (1300 340 357) which is staffed by volunteers with personal experience of chronic pain.

  • Got to Painaustralia to find pain services and programs in your area.

  • Learn more about prescription opioids on the ScriptWise website.

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

Last reviewed: January 2021


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