Most Adults on Prescribed Opioid Painkillers Keep Leftover Pills for Future Use, Share Drugs With Others

By Denisse Moreno, Epoch Times
June 16, 2016 Updated: June 16, 2016

More than half of adults who are prescribed opioid painkillers save their left over pills for future use and may eventually share them with others, a new study says.

The study, by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, shows that almost half of the patients surveyed did not receive any instructions on how to safely store the drugs, either to keep them from young children who could accidentally take them, or from teens or other adults who could use the pills to get high.

Patients were also not informed on how to safely dispose of the drugs. Less than 7 percent of people who had left over pills reported returning the drugs to pharmacies, police, or the Drug Enforcement Administration through “take back” programs.

“These painkillers are much riskier than has been understood and the volume of prescribing and use has contributed to an opioid epidemic in this country,” said study leader Alene Kennedy-Hendricks.

She said it is not clear why patients that were surveyed have leftover pills, but it could be that they are prescribed more medication than they actually needed.

There has been a sharp increase in prescription painkiller addiction and overdose deaths. Opioids, including prescription opioid pain relievers and heroin, killed more than 28,000 people in 2014, the highest year recorded. At least half of all opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Deaths from prescription opioids—like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone—have quadrupled since 1999. More than 40 people die daily from overdoses involving prescription opioids, says the CDC.

The survey, conducted in February and March 2015, included 1,032 adults in the United States who had used prescription painkillers in the previous year. During the time of the survey, 592 participants were no longer used prescription painkillers.

Out of those surveyed, 60.6 percent said they had leftover pills, and of them, 61.3 percent said they kept the pills for future use.

Hydrocodone pills, also known as Vicodin, at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt., on Feb. 19, 2013. Drug overdose deaths rose for the 11th straight year, federal data show, and most of them were accidents involving addictive painkillers despite growing attention to risks from these medicines. As in previous recent years, opioid drugs—which include OxyContin and Vicodin—were the biggest problem, contributing to 3 out of 4 medication overdose deaths. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
Hydrocodone pills, also known as Vicodin. Opioid drugs—which include OxyContin and Vicodin—contribute to about 3 out of 4 medication overdose deaths. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

Among the participants, one in five admitted to have shared their pills with another person—most said they gave the medication to someone who was in pain. Almost 14 percent said they were likely to share their prescription painkillers with a family member in the future, while nearly 8 percent said they would share with a close friend.

“The fact that people are sharing their leftover prescription painkillers at such high rates is a big concern. It’s fine to give a friend a Tylenol if they’re having pain but it’s not fine to give your OxyContin to someone without a prescription,” said the study’s senior author Colleen L. Barry.

Giving Pills to Friends Is Illegal

It is illegal for people to possess drugs not prescribed specifically for his or herself. The individual could be charged with illegal possession of prescription drugs. Those providing controlled prescription drugs to another person, either by selling or giving, could potentially be charged with manslaughter or homicide if the person who is given the drug dies.

Less than 10 percent of the respondents said they kept their opioid medication locked away. Fewer than 10 percent of the people surveyed said they threw the leftover pills in the trash after mixing them with something edible, like coffee grounds, which is considered a safe disposal method.

Researchers say doctors should instruct people who are being prescribed medications on how to safely dispose of them.

“We don’t make it easy for people to get rid of these medications,” said Kennedy-Hendricks.

“We need to do a better job so that we can reduce the risks, not only to patients but to their family members,” she added.

More than 69 percent of those got information on how to give back pills though “take back” programs,” however only a few of them followed through.

We have treated these medications like they’re not dangerous.
— Colleen L. Barry, Bloomberg's Center for Mental Health and Addiction Policy Research

“We’re at a watershed moment. Until recently, we have treated these medications like they’re not dangerous. But the public, the medical community and policymakers are now beginning to understand that these are dangerous medications and need to be treated as such. If we don’t change our approach, we are going to continue to see the epidemic grow,” said Barry.

Opioids Contribute to Chronic Pain: Study

In March, the CDC urged doctors to avoid prescribing strong opioid painkillers to patients with chronic pain, saying the risks involving addiction, overdose, and the possible eventual use of heroin outweigh the benefits for most people.ok ok thanks

Meanwhile, another recent study suggests that the recent increase in opioid prescriptions may contribute to chronic pain. A study by University of Colorado Boulder released in May suggests that opioids like morphine, oxycodone, and methadone that are used as painkillers may actually cause an increase in pain over time.

Researchers found that just a few days of morphine treatment caused chronic pain that went on for several months by aggravating the release of pain signals from specific immune cells in the spinal cord.

“We are showing for the first time that even a brief exposure to opioids can have long-term negative effects on pain,” said one of the lead authors of that study, Professor Peter Grace.

The findings on leftover pills were published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal.