Use of opioid-based pain medications may increase the risk of developing pneumonia, according to the findings of a new study.
In findings published last week in the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine, Yale researchers suggest that the risk stems from opioid side effects on the body’s immune system.
Opioids are often prescribed to people to help with pain, especially patients with HIV. However, some opioids are known to suppress the immune system and inhibit the body’s ability to fight infection, including fentanyl, morphine, and codeine.
For that reason, researchers from the Yale School of Medicine wanted to study the effect opioids had on community-acquired pneumonia.
They focused on patients with and without HIV in the Veterans Aging Cohort Study (VACS) who received care in the Veterans Health Administration medical centers in the U.S. from 2000 to 2012. This included 4,200 patients who had pneumonia and needed hospitalization. They were matched with more than 21,100 control patients.
Researchers focused on the length of time patients were taking opioids, the dosage, and if the painkiller had any known immunosuppressive properties.
Overall, patients taking opioid painkillers had an increased risk of developing pneumonia when compared to patients who were not taking opioids. Those taking medium or high doses of opioid painkillers faced a higher risk of pneumonia than patients taking lower doses of the narcotic painkillers.
That risk was even greater if the opioid had immunosuppressive properties. Patients with HIV were also more likely to develop pneumonia, even at low doses of opioids and opioids with immunosuppressive properties.
Researchers said taking narcotic painkillers can affect the body and how it wards off pneumonia, including suppressing cough, respiration, and mucus secretion.
Study authors said the findings should help inform awareness among doctors, who should take steps to avoid prescribing opioids when possible. They can also focus on using lower doses and opioid formulas without known immunosuppressive properties.
Similarly, doctors can help patients avoid pneumonia by emphasizing the importance of flu vaccines and quitting smoking, which can contribute to increased risk of developing pneumonia.