By now, most of us are familiar with some of the unintended consequences of the massive overprescription of opioids. Millions of people who would not otherwise have had an issue with opioids became dependent and addicted. More than half of women and a third of men addicted to opioids were first exposed to opioids when they were prescribed by a doctor. [https://health.usnews.com/health-care/for-better/articles/2017-06-19/why-women-may-be-more-vulnerable-to-abusing-opiates]
Another major problem was excess availability of opioids. For example, a doctor might prescribe a month’s worth of opioid painkillers following a procedure, even though the most severe pain typically passes in a matter of days. While some people may continue to take the medication long after they need it and develop an addiction, most people get tired of feeling loopy and groggy and quit taking opioid painkillers as soon as they can tolerate the pain without them. Instead of taking the pills back to the pharmacy or otherwise disposing of them, they are more likely to keep the pills in the medicine cabinet, “just in case.” If you have kids, this can be a problem. Lacking other means to get drugs and alcohol, teens, especially younger adolescents, will often snoop around the house. They may try opioids themselves or they may sell them to someone else. Either way, there are all these extra pills floating around and each one has the potential to start someone down the path of addiction.
However, the danger goes both ways. For example, about five million people have wisdom teeth extracted every year and most of those people are teens and still living at home. [https://www.msn.com/en-us/health/medical/for-many-teens-the-battle-with-opioid-addiction-starts-with-wisdom-teeth/ar-BBQvceb] Although the CDC suggests much stricter guidelines in prescribing opioids and those guidelines are increasingly adhered to, it hasn’t been uncommon for oral surgeons to prescribe a month’s worth of powerful opioids such as Vicodin or OxyContin following this relatively minor procedure. This is clearly bad for teens, who are especially vulnerable to developing substance use issues following early exposure to opioids, but it’s also a danger for parents. It can be a major challenge for someone recovering from an opioid use disorder to have a bottle of pills sitting in the medicine cabinet indefinitely.
What to do
There are a number of ways to minimize the risk that you’ll raid your child’s painkillers. The first is to hold the doctor or surgeon accountable for her prescribing. Insist on a shorter prescription, if opioids are really necessary at all. For example, studies show that the combination of ibuprofen and acetaminophen–two over-the-counter, non-addictive pain medications–is more powerful than either alone and relieves pain comparably to many opioids. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2791549/] This is better for both you and your child, who may have inherited some of your addictive tendencies. It may also be a good idea to have your partner, spouse, or other family member hold on to the prescription so you don’t have easy access. Finally, when your child no longer needs the medication, don’t hold onto it “just in case.” Have someone take it back to the pharmacy to be disposed of properly.
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