Hydrocodone, Oxycontin, Codeine, Vicodin, Fentanyl, Methadone, Morphine, Heroin; what do these drugs have in common?

For starters, they all belong to the opiate class of compounds. Opiates are painkillers that act upon dopamine receptors in the brain, making you feel good even when your body tells you otherwise. Another thing they all have in common is their addiction potential.

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS),11.5 million people misused prescription opioids in 2016 alone. The same year, 2.1 million people had an opioid use disorder. The potential for addiction is there, especially for medicine prescribed  by doctors.

The story gets even bleaker: 42,249 people died from an opioid overdose that year, 17,087 of which were a result of prescription medication. In fact, almost 2,000 more people died from prescription opiates than from heroin. The problem is real, and it’s terrifying.

What can we do?

President Trump declared a national health emergency late last summer to combat the mounting death toll. Following this executive order, the HHS set forth the following five points of resistance:

  • Improving access to treatment and recovery services;
  • Promoting the use of overdose-reversing drugs;
  • Strengthening our understanding of the epidemic through better public health surveillance;
  • Providing support for cutting-edge research on pain and addiction; and
  • Advancing better practices for pain management.

This is the U.S. government’s official plan of action, including several problem-solving and strategic solutions for each of these five, unquestionably crucial points. The plan doesn’t, however, show parents with children at risk of developing addiction how to handle medication safely. Nor does it inform parents themselves of the dangers they might face if they misused prescription painkillers.

What can you do?

There are a number of ways you can shield yourself from potential addiction. For starters, you can decide against being among the 31% who take medication that wasn’t prescribed to them. But, what about the drugs you were prescribed by your doctor?

There’s a prevailing assumption in America that medicine prescribed by doctors and received over the counter at a pharmacy can’t hurt you. As we’ve seen to date, this is far from true. If you sustain an injury and are prescribed a painkiller, you will likely want to take it to avoid the pain, a perfectly acceptable thing to do. To prevent a dangerous outcome, however, here are a few ways to safely take medication.

  • Even though it isn’t a common occurrence, pharmacies have been known to bottle and distribute counterfeit medication unwittingly. Due to a lack of awareness around this issue, 54% of Americans don’t check for authenticity before taking their prescriptions. This can lead to dangerous side-effects from cross-medication reactions. One way to stay safe is to read the label carefully. Typically, there will be a description of the pills’ shape, size, color, and markings on the label. Sometimes there are even pictures to help you better identify what you’re taking.
  • In a survey aimed at learning about the public’s comprehension of pharmaceutical labels, 35% of respondents said that they were confused by the dosage instructions. If you ever find yourself in this position, call your doctor and seek clarification before taking any medicine. Certain substances can be completely safe at a certain dose, yet quite dangerous at another.
  • For 34% of Americans, cutting a pill in half is exceedingly difficult. This has led many people to either skip a dose or take the whole pill instead. Depending on the medicine in question, either option could be a bad decision. If your prescription calls for the halving of pills, purchase a pill cutter to make it easier.

The best thing you can do to stay safe while taking doctor-prescribed medication, including opioids, is to keep in contact with your doctor. Having an open dialogue to ask questions, voice concerns, and seek guidance is an incredibly important resource. Likewise, if you notice anyone you know struggling with their prescription, don’t hesitate to help them in any way you can.

Other Medication Safety Strategies

Another option you have, especially when the situation calls for a prescription painkiller, is to talk with your doctor about non-opioid medication. A study suggests that higher doses of ibuprofen and acetaminophen (Tylenol and Asprin respectively) were significantly better at treating pain than oxycodone or Percocet. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but it holds true nonetheless.

Of course, prolonged use of acetaminophen can cause kidney disease and bleeding in the digestive tract, but that is the result of severe overuse. Also, since there’s little to none known addiction risk to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, the risks are minimal. No matter what medicine you are taking, you should always take it as directed.

The opioid epidemic rolls on, with too many Americans knowing too little about their prescriptions. The way forward is undoubtedly murky and filled with future tragedies, but if every person follows a plan that places safety first, we can make it through together. Opioids are a dangerous class of drug, one that has claimed many lives through overdose. Don’t let it be you.

If you have an addiction to prescription medication and need to talk to someone, call either your doctor or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s national helpline: 1-800-662-4357

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