Baltimore—Most prescription opioid medications are not stored safely so that children can’t access them, a new study points out.

The article, published in the journal Pediatrics, reports that nearly 70% of prescription opioid medications are not kept out of the reach of children.

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers conducted a national survey of 681 adults who used opioid pain relievers in the past year and had children ages 17 and younger living with them. Results indicate that only 31% reported safely storing the drugs away from their children. Among those homes with children seven to 17 years old, just 12% reported safe storage, even though older children are more likely to divert use of them.

For purposes of the survey, safe storage was defined as keeping the medication in a locked or latched place for homes with younger children, and a locked place for homes with older children.

“Our work shines a light on the pervasiveness of unsafely stored opioids in American homes with children,” explained lead author Eileen McDonald, MS, faculty with the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy. “Unsafely stored opioids can contribute to accidental ingestions among younger children and pilfering by older children, especially high school students. We know that teens who use these drugs recreationally frequently get them from homes where they are easily accessible, increasing their risk for addiction and overdose.”

While 73% of respondents agreed that children might overdose on opioids more easily than adults, only 13% said they “worry” about their children accessing their opioid medications. Furthermore, parents of older children were significantly less likely to worry about children accessing medication than parents of younger children.

Safe storage was reported by 32.6% of those with only young children, defined as age <6 years; 11.7% among those with older children only, defined as ages 7 to 17 years, and 29.0% among those with children in both age groups.

Their results argue for the need to better educate families about the importance of storing pills safely as well as greater use of technology, such as “smart” packaging that only allows the prescribed person to open the bottle, to prevent older children from accessing the pills, researchers say.

“Unfortunately, the current child-resistant packaging that was transformative in reducing medication poisoning in young children will not keep older children and teens safe,” emphasized senior author Andrea Gielen, ScD, ScM, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy. “We need new packaging, such as tamper-resistant, personalized pill dispensers, to make it easier for parents to keep these potentially dangerous medications inaccessible to older children. In the meantime, parents should keep their medications locked away and dispose of any leftover pills promptly and safely.”

For their study, the researchers drew from a nationally representative GfK Group KnowledgePanel sample of nearly 5,000 adults to identify people who had used prescription opioids in the past year and lived in a home with children. The online survey was administered between February 24 and March 16, 2015.

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