Prescription painkillers are big, big business for pharmaceutical companies. At any given time, there are a dozen drugs being prescribed almost on a daily basis by general practitioners. In part, this is because pain is the number one symptom we want addressed right away when we have a medical problem. Pain is difficult to live with and can be very disruptive to our quality of life.
Pain relievers have a potentially important role to play, then, when it comes to the initial treatment of a medical problem. But underneath this medical benefit, a disturbing trend is growing: the misuse of these prescription painkillers for non-medicinal reasons. Prescription painkillers like oxycodone (“OxyContin”) and hydrocodone (“Vicodin”) are second only to marijuana as Americans’ illicit drugs of choice. A federal government survey found that, in 2007, more than five million Americans age 12 or older said they had used a prescription narcotic for “non-medical” reasons in the past month. Just over 56% said they got those pills from a family member or friend. According to the report, in Florida alone, there were three times more deaths from prescription drugs than all illicit drugs combined.
More recently, a study found that of 213 patients prescribed narcotic painkillers after surgery for a urological condition, two-thirds had leftover pills a few weeks later. And almost all of those patients were keeping the leftovers in their medicine cabinets.
Doctors inadvertently play a big role in the creation of this surplus of medication, because they basically have to guess how much pain medication a patient will need. They are left trying to make a quick judgment on how painful a patient’s recovery is going to be. Combine this with the fact that people perceive pain differently, and you can see where the guesswork comes in.
So, what happens to all this surplus? Back to the study: more than 90% of the study patients said they had received no instruction from their doctor or pharmacist on what to do with unused pills. Most ended up sitting in people’s medicine cabinets where anyone from a neighbor’s teenage kid to a handyman contracted to do work in the home could easily take the medication.
What should you do with those unused pain pills? Advice about what to do varies. According to some sources, narcotic painkillers should either be flushed down the toilet or mixed with something unappealing — like cat litter or coffee grounds — and thrown away. There are federal guidelines on safe disposal of narcotics and other drugs available online. But one thing that you can do right away is to find the instructions that came with your medication on how to dispose of leftover pills. If you can’t find any instructions, try calling your pharmacist.