Baltimore—Patients with leftover opioids usually save them for future use, although some said they would share them with family or friends if needed for pain.

That’s according to a new survey, reported in a research letter published by JAMA Internal Medicine, which also found that the narcotics usually are not secured and that “take back” programs are rarely used.

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers point out that nearly half of those surveyed reported receiving no information on how to safely store their medications, either to keep them from young children who could accidentally ingest them or from other adults or adolescents looking to abuse them. Fewer than 10% said they kept their opioid pain medication in a locked location,

In addition, fewer than 7% of respondents with extra pills reported taking advantage of “take back” programs whereby patients turn in unused pain medication to pharmacies, police departments or the Drug Enforcement Administration for disposal. Another small percentage or survey takers, also lower than 10%, said they threw out leftover medication after mixing it with something inedible like used coffee grounds—considered a safe disposal method.

“These painkillers are much riskier than has been understood and the volume of prescribing and use has contributed to an opioid epidemic in this country,” emphasized study leader Alene Kennedy-Hendricks, PhD, an assistant scientist in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School. “It's not clear why so many of our survey respondents reported having leftover medication, but it could be that they were prescribed more medication than they needed.”

The study used GfK's KnowledgePanel to construct a national sample of 1,032 U.S. adults who had used prescription painkillers in the previous year, with the survey fielded in February and March 2015.

Results indicate that, among those who were no longer using prescription pain relievers at the time of the survey (592 respondents), 60.6% reported having leftover pills and 61.3% of those with leftover pills said they had kept them for future use rather than disposing of them.

Among all respondents, 20% reported they'd shared their medication with another person, usually for pain control. In addition, nearly 14% said they were likely to share their prescription painkillers with a family member in the future and nearly 8% said they would share with a close friend.

“The fact that people are sharing their leftover prescription painkillers at such high rates is a big concern,” noted senior author Colleen L. Barry, PhD, MPP, who directs Bloomberg’s Center for Mental Health and Addiction Policy Research. “It's fine to give a friend a Tylenol if they're having pain but it's not fine to give your OxyContin to someone without a prescription.”

Kennedy-Hendricks urged healthcare professionals to discuss the inappropriateness of sharing and how to safely store and dispose of them.

“We don't make it easy for people to get rid of these medications,” she noted. “We need to do a better job so that we can reduce the risks not only to patients but to their family members.”

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