Substance abuse originates in any number of ways. The US decision to address a growing drug problem in the 1980s by advising people to “just say no” drastically oversimplified the roots of drug addiction, undoubtedly causing people caught up in substance abuse to feel personal guilt on top of the many other effects of addiction.

Today more of the ways that substance abuse begins are understood. Rarely is it as simple as a sketchy person offering a teenager a pill in the park. One way drug abuse can insinuate itself into ordinary people’s lives is especially subtle, starting in the home medicine cabinet.

Surveys like a new Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs study of 1,006 US adults found that approximately one-third of Americans had not purged the contents of their medicine cabinets in at least a year. Some of the leftover drugs are especially harmful, including frequently prescribed painkillers like OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin.

Worse still, a 2016 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine reported that 60 percent of participants who had been prescribed an opioid recently said they were keeping leftover drugs for future use. Nearly one-half reported not knowing what to do with leftover opioid medications.

What Happens to Leftover Opioids?

A 2014 study published in the Clinical Journal of Pain analyzed answers to a questionnaire on prescription opioid use in 191 veterans who had received prescriptions for opioids within the previous 12 months. A paltry 6.3 percent disposed of leftover medications, and less than one-quarter reported even having leftover opioids. Nearly two-thirds reported keeping leftover opioids, and slightly over one-third said they shared opioids at least once, having either shared their own pills or having received them from a friend or family member.

A 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine had similar findings, with 66 percent of respondents saying they kept unused medication and 20 percent admitting to sharing leftover pills, primarily to help a friend or family member manage pain. Less than 10 percent of respondents reported keeping medicines locked up, and half said they were not told how to dispose of unneeded medication.

How Leftover Drugs Can Contribute to the Substance Abuse Epidemic

Legitimate prescribing and well-meaning sharing of opioids can lead to substance abuse and full-blown addiction. One woman profiled by NBC News developed a long-lasting substance abuse disorder simply due to a routine prescription by her dentist for Percocet when she had her wisdom teeth removed as a teenager. Once the pain from the dental surgery went away after a few days, this young woman continued taking the Percocet because there were pills left over, and they caused feelings of euphoria. It took less than a month for legitimate opioid use to turn into addiction.

Lest you think it was an isolated incident, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) says that dentists are leading prescribers of opioids, often for use after surgical tooth extraction. The highest number of painkillers are prescribed to teens under age 17, and the second-highest number are prescribed to young adults ages 18 to 24, prime age groups for the routine removal of wisdom teeth.

How to Dispose of Leftover Opioid Medications

What should you do if you have painkillers left over from a prescription? There are many ways to safely dispose of them:

  • Return them to your pharmacy (or one of the many hospitals, clinics, or treatment programs that have drug take-back programs). Finding a program near you is as simple as typing your zip code into a website that finds disposal locations.
  • Use a postage-paid envelope provided by many chain pharmacies like Costco to return medications to a disposal facility.
  • Find out if your local chain pharmacy offers an anonymous, secure self-service disposal kiosk.
  • If you dispose of them in your trash, mix them in with unpalatable garbage like coffee grounds or used cat litter, and then seal everything up before throwing it away. Be aware, however, that this may not be enough to prevent someone with a substance abuse disorder from recovering them. That is how powerful opiate addictions are.

When Opioids Result in Substance Abuse and Addiction

Regardless of how it came about, If you have developed a substance abuse disorder, it is time to reach out for help from addiction specialists. Help is as close as your computer or your phone, and we encourage you to reach out and contact us today.

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