THE BLOG

The Most Fatally Abused Drug Is in Your Medicine Cabinet

03/16/2015 12:42 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015
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When it comes to poisonous substances, Americans tend to think first of plants, household cleaners or various insects. We place child locks on our cabinets, we wear insect repellent when we go hiking and we're wary of running into poison ivy. But more Americans are dying from poisonings today than in the past two decades, and none of these sources is the culprit.

We're taking more drugs.

Nearly nine out of 10 poisoning deaths in 2013 were due to drug overdoses. Opioid prescription painkillers such as Vicodin, Oxycontin and Percocet account for 44 drug overdose deaths each day -- more than heroin and cocaine combined. Essentially, the most poisonous substance today is legal and sitting in the medicine cabinet.

National Poison Prevention Week is the perfect time to learn how to prevent opioid painkiller overdose and addiction. Know the facts. According to new National Safety Council public opinion poll, few Americans do.

Most Americans do not realize sharing opioid painkillers is a felony

Both opioid painkillers and heroin are federally regulated, highly controlled substances, and the consequences for sharing them can be equally severe. In most states, sharing an opioid prescription painkiller is the legal equivalent to selling heroin.

The road to the country's opioid painkiller crisis has been paved with good intentions. When a family member or friend is in pain, our desire is to help. In fact, most people who become addicted to opioid painkillers get the drugs from friends or family members.

According to National Safety Council Medical Adviser Dr. Donald Teater, M.D., you should never share opioid painkillers. They should always be locked in a cabinet or box. We wouldn't leave heroin lying around. Why not lock up opioids? The consequences are not worth the risk.

Nine in 10 opioid painkiller users are unconcerned about addiction -- but should be

The NSC survey showed 60 percent of opioid users have at least one addiction risk factor - personal or family history of alcoholism, mental illness, psychiatric treatment or abuse - and 67 percent said opioid painkillers are more addictive than other medications.

According to Dr. Teater, anyone can become addicted to opioid painkillers, and withdrawal symptoms can occur even if someone has taken opioids for as few as five days.

There's a pervasive attitude in our society that "it won't happen to me." We all know that's not true in every case. Not everyone who takes opioid painkillers will become addicted, but denying the possibility is like playing Russian roulette.

Opioid painkiller users overestimate the benefits

A staggering 74 percent of those surveyed believe opioid painkillers are the strongest way to treat pain. It's not surprising; the drugs are marketed as the Cadillac of pain treatment. But research shows when it comes to treating most acute pain, opioid painkillers actually are less effective than over-the-counter acetaminophen and ibuprofen.

In medicine, sometimes the treatment is worse than the disease. Opioid painkillers have so many side effects that you should weigh your options carefully, Dr. Teater says, understanding a simple acetaminophen and ibuprofen combination could provide faster and safer pain relief.

Reducing your risk

We all can help end opioid painkiller misuse. Dr. Teater offers the following tips:

• Talk to your doctor about alternative options
• If you must take opioid painkillers, take them for a short amount of time and at the lowest possible dose
• Dispose of your leftover medications properly
• Never share your prescriptions
• Lock up your medications
• Never underestimate how quickly you or someone you love can become addicted

With the right education, we can curb our nation's opioid painkiller epidemic. By doing so, we can help ensure 44 more people avoid fatal unintentional opioid poisoning.