People save and share leftover prescription opioids, study finds

Hopkins researchers find people save and share leftover prescription painkillers.

More than half of patients prescribed opioids had leftover pills and many said they planned to hang onto the powerful painkillers often linked to addiction and overdose, according to new research from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Researchers found nearly half of those surveyed were not given information on safe storage or disposal of the pills, such as oxycodone, increasing the risk that the pills could be accessed by children accidentally or by others looking to get high.

“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 Alene Kennedy-Hendricks, an assistant scientist in the Bloomberg School’s department of health policy and management and the study leader. “It’s not clear why so many of our survey respondents reported having leftover medication, but it could be that they were prescribed more medication than they needed.”

Last week, Maryland reported a spike in overdose deaths in 2015, largely from opioids. Public health officials believe many people addicted to prescriptions later moved onto cheaper illicit drugs such as heroin.

Officials locally and nationally have been working on ways to combat the level of addiction, including stemming the number of pills prescribed. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines in March that call on doctors to avoid use of the drugs for chronic pain.

Once the pills make it into someone’s medicine cabinet, few ever report disposing of them through a “take back” program with a pharmacy or by mixing them with coffee grounds or other inedible item and trashing them, the Hopkins researchers found.

The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, was a collaboration between the Hopkins Center for Mental Health and Addiction Policy Research and the Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy. It surveyed more than 1,000 people who had used prescription painkillers in the previous year. About 20 percent said they’d shared the medications and others said they were likely to share them with family or friends.

Researchers said there need to be easier methods of disposal.

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