A shockingly common practice may be quietly fuelling the opioid epidemic

Overdoses from opioid painkillers are surging, and a common practice could be partially to blame.

A new survey of more than a thousand US adults published this week by the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that more than half of people who receive prescriptions for painkillers like OxyContin or Vicodin are given way too many — and don’t toss the drugs even after they no longer need them.

The survey looked at 1,032 American adults who’d used opioid painkillers sometime during the year prior.

Out of those who said they were no longer using the drugs at the time of the survey, roughly 61% said they still had pills left over. And among those with leftover drugs, roughly the same percentage said they were keeping the pills rather than throwing them away.

Toss your drugs — or store them safely

Holding onto opioid painkillers is dangerous. More than half of people who abuse the drugs say they got them for free from family or friends, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Still, nearly half of the people who participated in this survey said they hadn’t been given any guidelines for safely storing their opioid painkillers. Fewer than 9% said they kept them locked up.

And roughly one in five survey participants admitted to sharing opioid medications with another person, although fewer people said they’d do so with family (14%) or close friends (8%).

To discard your pills properly, you can take them to drop-off centres at pharmacies or mail them to collection centres in special envelopes available at your local pharmacy. To find out more, call the DEA’s Registration Call Center at (800) 882-9539 or checkout their guidelines on drug disposal. If this isn’t an option, the FDA recommends mixing (not crushing) the medicines with something inedible like dirt or kitty litter, placing it in a sealable container, and throwing it away.

Too many prescriptions, too many drugs

Opioid painkillers kill more Americans than heroin, according to the CDC, and may also have played a role in Prince’s death. Between 2000 and 2014, nearly half a million Americans died from overdoses involving these drugs. And the rates of these deaths jumped 14% from 2013 to 2014, according to the CDC.

“There’s no question that we are facing a really serious problem,” lead study author Alene Kennedy-Hendricks, an assistant scientist in health policy and management at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Business Insider.

Last month, health insurance giant Cigna unveiled plans to try to curb this rising tide. Their program includes setting a goal of slashing its customers’ opioid painkiller use by 25% over the next three years, and would make the company one of the largest insurance companies with such a plan.

“We know there are too many prescriptions being written for these drugs today that are not necessary,” Douglas Nemecek, Cigna’s chief medical officer of behavioural health, told Business Insider last month. “Our goal is really to eliminate those.”

None of these options alone will likely be enough to solve the problem, experts say, but combining them might.

“Safe storage and disposal isn’t the whole answer, and neither is making sure doctors are prescribing the right amount of these drugs so people don’t have so many left over,” said Kennedy-Hendricks. “But all of these things are parts of a potential solution.”

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