Opioids – Information for Dentists


Prescription opioids continue to contribute to the opioid overdose epidemic in the United States. In 2018, nearly 15,000 people died from overdoses involving prescription opioids; this means that one-third of all opioid overdoses were related to prescription medications.1

Additionally, some people develop an opioid use disorder and seek out products with higher potency so they can experience the euphoria they initially felt. In the process, many of those addicted to opioids are accidentally being poisoned by fentanyl-laced products.2

To keep health care professionals up to date on the opioids issue, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and its agencies provide a wide variety of information and resources. Dentists can access information from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Indian Health Service (IHS). See Additional Resources after the Helpful Tips section below for a complete list.

Helpful Tips

  • Consider nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) as the first-line therapy for acute dental pain management. Studies have found that NSAIDs taken after a dental procedure are at least as effective (or superior) to opioid analgesics for reducing acute dental pain.3,4
  • Consider using multimodal opioid-sparing strategies such as pre-treatment with NSAIDs and long-acting local anesthesia. Several government agencies, professional organizations, and experts point to the need for these approaches.3,5-7
  • If you consider prescribing an opioid for acute pain, follow the CDC guidelines8:
    • Prescribe the lowest effective dose of immediate-release opioids.
    • Prescribe no greater quantity than needed for the expected duration of pain severe enough to require opioids.
  • Note that three days or less will often be sufficient, and more than seven days will rarely be needed.
  • Be aware that you may be the first to prescribe an opioid to an adolescent if you write a prescription after third molar extraction. Opioids prescribed after wisdom-tooth removal are frequently the first opioid experience for adolescents and young adults.3
  • It’s important to know research has shown that medical use of prescription opioids is highly correlated with non-medical use of them among high school seniors. Among adolescents who reported both types of use, medical use generally came first.9
  • Additional research shows a similar finding in young people ages 13-30 undergoing third molar extraction. A filled perioperative opioid prescription is associated with persistent use of prescription opioids, defined as one or more filled prescriptions from four days to one year after the procedure.10
  • In view of these risks, consider non-opioid analgesics for this population instead.
  • Register with and use your state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) to promote the appropriate use of opioids and deter misuse and abuse. When opioid prescribing is indicated, risk of misuse and diversion may be mitigated by consistent PDMP use and patient education.11
  • Counsel your patients if you prescribe an opioid pain medication12:
    • Ask about any other medications they’re currently taking, and whether they or any family members have had problems with substance use, such as with alcohol, prescription medications, or illicit drugs.
    • Explain the risks of taking the medication.
    • Describe how to take the medicine, how long to take it, and how to minimize its use by taking over-the-counter pain relievers, and adding opioids only if necessary to manage more severe pain.
    • Explain that alcohol should never be used when taking an opioid medication.
    • Provide guidance on storing medication in a safe place out of sight and out of reach of children, teens, and guests, preferably in a locked cabinet.

Additional Resources

Below are additional resources about the opioid crisis. (Information for your patients can be found on the NIDCR Opioids & Dental Pain webpage for consumers.)


  1. Wilson N, Kariisa M, Seth P, Smith H IV, Davis NL. Drug and opioid-involved overdose deaths — United States, 2017–2018. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020;69(11):290-297. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6911a4.
  2. Volkow N. Addressing America’s fentanyl crisis. Nora’s Blog. https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/noras-blog/2017/04/addressing-americas-fentanyl-crisis. Published April 6, 2017. Accessed April 2, 2021.
  3. Indian Health Service, Division of Oral Health; Indian Health Service, National Committee on Heroin, Opioid and Pain Efforts. Recommendations for management of acute dental pain. Indian Health Service. https://www.ihs.gov/newsroom/ihs-blog/may2019/ihs-introduces-recommendations-for-management-of-acute-dental-pain/. Updated November 2020. Accessed February 10, 2021.
  4. Dionne RA, Gordon SM, Moore PA. Prescribing opioid analgesics for acute dental pain: Time to change clinical practices in response to evidence and misperceptions. Compend Contin Educ Dent. 2016;37(6):372-378.
  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force. Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force Report: Updates, gaps, inconsistencies, and recommendations: Final report. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.hhs.gov/ash/advisory-committees/pain/reports/index.html. Updated May 9, 2019. Accessed February 10, 2021.
  6. Wardhan R, Chelly J. Recent advances in acute pain management: understanding the mechanisms of acute pain, the prescription of opioids, and the role of multimodal pain therapy. F1000Res. 2017;6:2065. https://doi.org/10.12688/f1000research.12286.1. Accessed February 10, 2021.
  7. Hersh EV, Moore PA, Grosser T, et al. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and opioids in postsurgical dental pain. J Dent Res. 2020;99(7):777-786. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022034520914254. Published April 14, 2020. Accessed February 10, 2021.
  8. Dowell D, Haegerich TM, Chou R. CDC guideline for prescribing opioids for chronic pain — United States, 2016. MMWR Recomm Rep. 2016;65(1):1-49. http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.rr6501e1. Published March 15, 2016. Updated March 18, 2016. Accessed February 10, 2021.
  9. McCabe SE, West BT, Veliz P, McCabe VV, Stoddard SA, Boyd CJ. Trends in medical and nonmedical use of prescription opioids among US adolescents: 1976–2015. Pediatrics. 2017;139(4):e20162387. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2016-2387. Accessed February 10, 2021.
  10. Harbaugh CM, Nalliah RP, Hu HM, Englesbe MJ, Waljee JF, Brummett CM. Persistent opioid use after wisdom tooth extraction. JAMA. 2018;320(5):504-506. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2018.9023. Published August 7, 2018. Accessed February 10, 2021.
  11. McCauley JL, Leite RS, Gordan VV, et al. Opioid prescribing and risk mitigation implementation in the management of acute pain: Results from The National Dental Practice-Based Research Network. J Am Dent Assoc. 2018;149(5):353-362. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adaj.2017.11.031. Published March 14, 2018. Accessed February 10, 2021.
  12. National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDAMED. Screening for substance use in the dental setting. National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://www.drugabuse.gov/nidamed-medical-health-professionals/science-to-medicine/screening-substance-use/in-dental-setting. Published November 21, 2018. Accessed February 10, 2021.

Opioids & Dental Pain Research from the NIDCR

Opioids & Dental Pain For Healthcare Providers

Last Reviewed
April 2021