Don't Throw These Leftovers Away

Prescription painkillers a major source of nonmedical use of opioids for teens

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) It's not uncommon to have leftover medications from a prescription you no longer need. If wisdom teeth sockets no longer hurt, most people stop taking the painkiller. But not everyone.

A recent study found that leftover prescription painkillers is a major source of these drugs for teens using them without doctor supervision. The researchers found that most of these teens were using them to relieve pain.

But others used them recreationally and had substance use problems. These teens had primarily gotten the prescriptions from emergency room doctors, dentists or other doctors.

"Return unused drugs to a pharmacy."

The study, led by Sean Esteban McCabe, PhD, from the Substance Abuse Research Center at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, aimed to find out how many teenagers using prescription opioid drugs without doctor supervision were actually using leftovers of their own past prescriptions.

The data came from questionnaires from 8,888 high school seniors in the years 2007 through 2010. Among these students, 647 reported using prescription painkillers within the past year without a doctor's instructions. When the researchers looked at responses related to the sources of these medications, a little over a third of the students (37 percent) had gotten the medications from their own past prescriptions.

They were basically taking prescription painkillers without a doctor's instructions that were leftover from when they had been given them previously for a medical reason.

However, not all of the students were using the drugs recreationally or for the same reasons.

The teens using the prescriptions non-medically – without a doctor's instructions or supervisions – were still mostly using the prescription painkillers to relieve actual physical pain.

Meanwhile, those teens who had gotten the prescription opioids from other sources were much more likely to be abusing the painkillers and to have other substance use problems.

For the students who were using their own leftover prescription drugs, 45 percent of them had gotten the prescription from an emergency room doctor. Another 27 percent got them from a dentist, and 38 percent got them from a different doctor.

The researchers concluded that leftover prescription painkillers were a "major source of non-medical use of prescription opioids among high school seniors."

"These findings indicate that enhanced vigilance is needed when prescribing prescription opioids and monitoring their use among adolescents to reduce leftover medications and nonmedical use," the authors wrote.

The study was published November 22 in the Journal of Adolescent Health. The research was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health. No conflicts of interest were noted.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 6, 2012
Last Updated:
December 10, 2012