Parents are leaving their opioid prescriptions out in the open, on counters and dressers, inadvertently giving children, especially teenagers, easy access to the pills, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The researchers surveyed 681 adults who use the painkillers and had children under age 17 and found that nearly 70 percent of prescription opioid medications kept in homes where children live are not stored safely.
The findings are published in the March edition of the journal Pediatrics.
The problem is especially acute in homes with teenagers who parents trust will not touch the medications, said lead author Eileen McDonald, a faculty member with the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy in the Bloomberg school.
Many teenagers will see an easily accessible pill bottle as a chance to experiment with the drug for the first time, or use it recreationally under the assumption that it's safe because it was prescribed by a doctor. The easy early access increases their chance of addiction, the researchers said.
Parents should be storing prescription opioids in a latched or locked place if they have younger children and a locked placed if they have older children, the researchers said.
"We can't leave opioids just sitting on the nightstand or kitchen counter," McDonald said. "Parents need to be at a minimum putting them out of the way, but ideally putting them under lock and key."
The use of drugs among children has spiked in recent years as an opioid and heroin epidemic has swept the country. Officials in public health, law enforcement and government are looking for ways to tackle the problem. Nearly 2 million people start using opioid painkillers each year, national studies have found.
Overdose deaths among children 17 years old and younger nearly doubled between 1999 and 2015, the researchers said. Opioids are the second-most-common illicit drugs used among 12- to 17-year-olds after marijuana, according to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Kim Gordon, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Sheppard Pratt Health System, said she was not surprised by the findings. Many of her clients were easily able to get their first dose of drugs from their homes.
"In most cases, parents usually don't know at first," she said. "With opioids, kids can take a while before they show behavioral, mood or even physiological changes."
McDonald said parents need to be better educated about the affects of opioids on children. Parents also need to be reminded that teenagers might not always make the right decisions, and might think themselves immune to the harmful affects of drugs.
"We think this is a unique opportunity for pediatricians," McDonald said. "We want pediatricians to use their professional position to educate the parents and talk to the children and teenagers when age-appropriate."
Bloomberg researchers are working on new technology that allows only the person who is prescribed a drug to open the bottle.
The Poison Prevention Packaging Act of 1970 required special drug packaging for young children and has helped reduce the number of accidental ingestions. The researchers hope even stronger tamper-proof packaging can reduce addiction and overdose deaths.