Does Opioid Painkiller Use Put Patients At Higher Risk For Deadly Infections?

By Beth Leipholtz 02/14/18

A new study examined whether there was a link between opioid use and the risk of invasive pneumococcal diseases.

man holding a pill and a glass of water

A new study in Annals of Internal Medicine analyzed the possibility that opioid painkillers could put patients at a higher risk of deadly infections. 

According to Nashville Public Radio, researchers at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee conducted the study. Researchers utilized data from the 1.4 million individuals on TennCare, the Medicaid program in Tennessee, and compared it with an infection tracking database. The results were that those who were on opioids have an approximately 60% higher chance of coming down with pneumonia and meningitis, also known as invasive pneumococcal diseases.

This is 1.62 times the rate for those who do not use opioids. In many cases, the illnesses were serious enough that individuals ended up hospitalized. 

According to Medical Xpress, invasive pneumococcal diseases are caused by the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria. The mortality rate ranges from 5 to 20%.  

"The association between opioid use and the risk of invasive pneumococcal diseases was strongest for opioids used at high doses, those classified as high potency and long-acting, which would be the extended release or controlled release formulations," said Andrew Wiese, the lead author of the study. 

Wiese also said in a prepared video statement that these findings should spur physicians to carefully consider prescribing opioids to elderly patients or those with weak immune systems. 

"Those are a group that—because they're at an increased risk for infection—we really want to make sure that providers are considering these immunosuppressive effects of opioids when making pain management decisions," he said.

Wiese also states that certain opioids don’t appear to affect the immune system as others do, which calls for more in-depth study. Prior to this study, he says, the link between opioids and infections had only been proven in animals. 

“We also found that opioids previously described as immunosuppressive in prior experimental studies conducted in animals had the strongest association with invasive pneumococcal diseases in humans,” Wiese said.

In the study, researchers used laboratory-confirmed infections through the Active Bacterial Core surveillance database, which is based at Vanderbilt and run in conjunction with the Tennessee Department of Health.

"The sources of data allowed us to reconstruct and compare the history of opioid exposures in those subjects with and without invasive pneumococcal diseases," said Carlos Grijalva, senior author and Vanderbilt health policy professor, in a statement.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health - the National Institute on Aging.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.