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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

  • Pethidine is an opioid pain-relief medicine that was once widely used in Australia for pain caused by a range of conditions.
  • Pethidine is now less frequently used because newer, safer opioids are available.
  • Pethidine is sometimes used to reduce labour pain in childbirth.
  • Pethidine is considered highly addictive and so is not prescribed on an ongoing basis, or in the treatment of persistent pain in chronic conditions.

What is pethidine?

Pethidine is an opioid pain-relief medicine. It was once widely used in Australia for pain caused by a range of conditions, but its use is decreasing because safer opioid medicines are now available.

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

What is pethidine used for?

Pethidine is no longer commonly prescribed and its use is discouraged due to the high risk of dependence.

Sometimes, pethidine is still used to help relieve labour pain during childbirth. In recent years, however, pethidine has been used less frequently in labour wards since morphine has been shown to give longer-lasting pain relief with fewer side effects.

How does pethidine work?

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

What are the possible side effects of taking pethidine?

All medicines, including pethidine, can have side effects.

Like all opioid medicines, pethidine can cause life-threatening or fatal breathing difficulties. The the risk of these is higher:

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

The side effects of pethidine increase with repeated dosing and so the medicine is not often used to treat pain.

Repeated dosing, especially in people with poor kidney function, can also lead to neural (nerve) conditions such as tremors, twitches and seizures.

Other side effects include:

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

What are the risks associated with pethidine?

Pethidine is an opioid medicine and can cause life-threatening breathing problems.

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

People can also develop tolerance when they take pethidine — 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.

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

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

Pethidine 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 pethidine.

There are other factors that may limit your use of pethidine — 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 pethidine 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 temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. The Australian Government is offering this medication free of charge and without a prescription to people who may experience, or witness, an opioid overdose.

Learn more about the Take Home Naloxone program.

Are there any alternatives to pethidine?

Everyone's pain is unique and different pain-relief medicines will work in different circumstances. Some people's pain will respond well to non-drug pain relief, while others might need non-opioid medicines.

Pethidine is not usually recommended to treat pain because there are other safer opioids available.

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

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 you have been given pethidine, but your pain is not well controlled, or you have any unexpected side effects, speak with your doctor.

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

Keep pethidine 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 pethidine to read the consumer medicine information (CMI) leaflet for the brand prescribed. You can also:

  • Call 1300 MEDICINE (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 Choosing Wisely website.

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

Last reviewed: January 2021

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