An opioid epidemic continues to rage in the United States, and much of the problem is fueled by prescription opioids. The rate of overdose deaths from opioids (both heroin and prescription opiates) has quadrupled since 1999, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. More than 165,000 people have died from prescription opioids during that time, fueled partially by over-prescribing by physicians and poor recognition of the dangers of painkiller opioids. Could hoarding opioids be to blame?
What Are Opioids and How Are They Used?
Humans have been using opioids in the form of opium for centuries. The development of morphine, which is naturally derived from the poppy plant, revolutionized pain management in the early 1800s. Suddenly, there was a way to manage severe pain caused by surgery or other major medical interventions. Now, the use of opioids has expanded not only to manage acute pain caused by surgery or injury, but also for the management of chronic pain.
Prescription painkillers should always be taken under medical supervision. For most cases of non-cancer pain, use of prescription opioids should be relatively brief to avoid opioid dependence and addiction. Because of the addictive potential of opioids, individuals must have a legitimate prescription to receive these drugs.
Common Reasons for Hoarding Opioids
Unfortunately, the availability of prescription opioids has proliferated in the past few decades, with more than 650,000 opioid prescriptions being dispensed per day. Given the wide availability of prescription drugs, it is no surprise that some people have begun hoarding opioids. The reasons for this vary.
In many cases, an entire prescription of opioids may be more than a person needs. For instance, a person may take opioids for a day or two following surgery but may switch to non-prescription painkillers thereafter, leaving excess pills in the bottle.
Some people hoard opioids because they anticipate needing them in the future and do not want to have to seek another prescription from their doctor. Still others purposely begin hoarding opioids to share with family or friends.
Although intentionally hoarding opioids to share with others — or sell on the street — is illegal, many people continue to engage in this harmful practice.
Dangers of Painkiller Opioids
Hoarding opioids is incredibly problematic because of the inherent dangers of painkiller opioids. Repeated use of opioids leads to neurobiological changes in the brain that contribute to opiate dependence and addiction. Opiate dependence refers to the development of tolerance, in which more and more of the drug is needed to achieve the same level of effect. Dependence also may include withdrawal symptoms that manifest when the drug is not available. Some level of opiate dependence occurs in anyone who takes prescription opioids over an extended period of time.
Addiction, on the other hand, refers to repeated drug-seeking behavior that occurs in some people who use opiates. Addiction often develops in people who use drugs to numb psychological or emotional pain. They may constantly seek ways to obtain and use the drug despite experiencing negative consequences at work, school, or in family life.
Finally, use of prescription opioids can lead to overdose. Because opioids are central nervous system depressants, they slow down your heart rate and breathing. Taking too much opioids can cause your breathing to slow to dangerous levels or even stop completely. Although overdoses can sometimes be reversed if caught quickly, they often end in death.
How to Stop Hoarding Opioids and Properly Dispose of Painkillers
It is essential to properly dispose of painkillers if you do not use an entire prescription or have excess painkillers in your home. The best way to dispose of painkillers is to take them to a Drug Enforcement Agency-authorized collector. This may be a retail pharmacy, hospital or clinic facility, or police office. Mail-back programs or drop boxes may be available at some facilities. When receiving your prescription, ask how best to dispose of excess pills.
If you cannot dispose of excess painkillers through an authorized collector, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains a list of prescription drugs that should be flushed down the sink or toilet if they are no longer needed. Drugs not on this list may be mixed with an undesirable substance (e.g., dirt, cat litter), placed in a sealed bag, and thrown in the trash. Make sure you remove identifying information from prescription containers before throwing them away.
About the Epidemic, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Retrieved on 02/07/2017.
Opioid Painkiller Prescribing, CDC.gov. Retrieved on 02/07/2017.
Disposal of Unused Medicines: What You Should Know, FDA. Retrieved on 02/07/2017.