Even with all the scary headlines about the ongoing opioid crisis in the United States, many parents still are careless with their prescription painkillers by making them easily accessible for their children, a new study suggests.
In an article published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, the authors noted that among parents who received no education from providers on proper disposal of leftover pills, only 19 percent said they promptly got rid of unused prescription pain medication after they no longer needed it.
Notably, nearly 12 percent of responding parents also acknowledged misusing the drugs.
"The high rate of parental misuse was a surprise -- and that this and past retention behaviors were so predictive of intention to keep the drug around," co-author Terri Voepel-Lewis, associate professor of nursing at the University of Michigan, said in a statement.
Abuse and misuse of opioid painkillers has reached epidemic levels across the country in recent years. The drugs, which are highly addictive, have been linked with nearly 50,000 deaths in the United States annually, and teens and children are just as likely to experience an opioid overdose as adults.
Although prescribing rates for opioid pain killers have dropped as awareness of the risks associated with their use has grown, parents risk endangering the health -- and lives -- of their children by not properly disposing of the drugs. The only way to completely avoid this risk is to get rid of unwanted medication as soon as possible, Voepel-Lewis noted.
Voepel-Lewis and her colleagues interviewed 517 parents of children between 7 and 17 years old who were prescribed a short course of opioids. The parents, all of whom lived in Michigan, were placed in one of three groups.
Some received a take-home pill disposal packet, some received the packet and an interactive web-based program asking them to make opioid dosing decisions for their children in different real-life scenarios and some received neither intervention.
In all, 93 percent of the study participants had leftover medication once their symptoms subsided. Although the majority of those who received neither education nor a disposal packet failed to get rid of unused pills, nearly 40 percent of those who were given the packet and had access to the web-based education program did so -- an indication, the authors noted, that convenient disposal paired with tailored risk education can effectively encourage proper handling of these dangerous drugs.
In addition, just 40 percent of the parents who accessed the web-based education program said they planned to keep leftover opioids.
"Many hospitals are now beginning to give disposal packets, mostly marketed and costly ones, with opioids," Voepel-Lewis said. "They are not doing this with other risky drugs and the risk ... information is lacking."
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