Your Deadly Medicine Cabinet
Check it, clear it, lock it up — or move it to a better place
With prescription drug addiction more of a problem even than illegal drug use, could your medicine cabinet be connected to criminal activity?
Cynthia MacGregor, a freelance writer in Palm Springs, Florida, didn’t think much about a drop-in guest at her Friday night poker game — until he made multiple trips to the bathroom.
“I have had a number of younger clients whose primary source was an elderly relative supplementing their retirement income,” said one counselor.
When the man’s fifth trip seemed to be lasting too long, she investigated — and found him bleeding profusely. After taking her husband’s anti-seizure medication, phenobarbital, the man had passed out and fallen against the bathtub. MacGregor now warns anyone about keeping prescription drugs in the bathroom.
“I don’t keep them in the kitchen as some people do, either,” she told LifeZette.
The opioid addiction epidemic is driving even more disturbing behavior: Veteran substance abuse counselor Christopher Gerhart of Little Rock, Arkansas, said a new source of the drug addict’s raid is the older American. Not only are the elderly often prescribed many pain relievers, they may be seeing several doctors. So there are even more pills around.
These people are often the victim of theft — but they may also be criminally involved as well.
“There seems to be a connection between poverty among older people and their willingness to become a conduit of the drug trade,” Gerhart said. “[Recently] I’ve had a number of younger clients presenting for treatment for opiate use disorder. Their primary source for the drug was an elderly relative supplementing his or her retirement income by selling pain medications.”
“There seems to be a connection between poverty among older people and their willingness to become a conduit of the drug trade.”
Gerhart, who makes sure he puts his own medication and pharmaceutical bags in his car trunk or glove compartment when he’s running errands to prevent potential theft, urges adult children to check their parents’ stashes.
“Among some people, there remains a ‘John Wayne’ toughness, where taking medication is seen as weak or ineffective,” he said. “Couple that with a lifetime pattern of saving and fiscal conservatism, and throwing away anything, especially something as costly as a prescription medication that may not be needed immediately, is a set-up.”
During Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week, new numbers from Fair Health, a nonprofit health care advocacy organization, indicate insurance costs to cover expenses related to addiction grew from $32 million per year to $446 million between 2011 and 2015. It costs insurance companies an average of $3,435 per individual for health care, but that figure soars to $19,333 for opioid abusers and addicts.
Gerhart warns people: Scan your medicine cabinet and purge unnecessary items, paying particular attention to opioids and other types of medications, including these:
This group of powerful painkillers includes Vicodin and Oxycontin. Abuse of these drugs can produce a heroin-like euphoria which is highly addictive and often leads to heroin use, which can be cheaper and easier to get. Opioids also depress respiration, which affects oxygen supplies to the brain. Brain deterioration and long-term brain damage are currently being researched.
- Buprenorphine and naloxone
- Zolpidem tartrate/Ambien
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports deaths from opioid overdose have quadrupled in the past 15 years.
Availability is key. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports a total of more than 4 billion prescriptions were filled last year through retail outlets (not including online orders). Sixty-seven percent of all doctors' visits resulted in a prescription drug being issued, and more than 2 million people have been diagnosed with drug abuse involving opioid pain medication.
The number of people using another person's prescription drug is impossible to track. Those using someone else's drugs are more likely to abuse, overuse, or combine the drug with alcohol or additional drugs — which often leads to an emergency reaction.
Commonly used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin are widely abused as well.
Depressants and Sedatives
Drugs that depress the central nervous system and are used to treat anxiety include Valium, Ativan, and Xanax. Common sedatives used for sleep are Lunesta, Ambien, and Sonata. Depressants and sedatives can be especially dangerous when combined with other drugs and alcohol and are also used as date rape drugs.
Abuse of antidepressants can produce serotonin syndrome, with symptoms as mild as shivering and diarrhea to the extreme of seizures. Widely used antidepressants are Cymbalta, Zoloft, Lexapro, Prozac, Paxil, Viibryd, Celexa, and Pristiq.
This includes over-the-counter drugs and the prescription-based. Used at recommended dosages, these drugs may not be addictive. Drug abusers, however, often use cough and cold remedies in high dosages — these also become psychoactive or mind-altering. Common cold products may also contain antihistamines and expectorants, which are automatically increased when large quantities are consumed. Important ingredients are Dextromethorphan, a common ingredient in over-the-counter products, and Promethazine-codeine in prescription grade cough syrups.
Gerhart warns about other medications as well. "Personally and professionally, I would not leave anything lying about that says, 'May cause drowsiness' or 'Impairs the ability to operate machinery,'" he explained. "Any drugs used for pain management, actually narcotic or not, have the potential to be abused. Many potentiate with alcohol and can highly unpredictable and negative interactions with one another."
The Food and Drug Administration requires instructions on drug packages regarding the safe disposal of drugs. The agency also recommends calling local law enforcement offices, many of whom sponsor "take back" programs to dispose of unwanted drugs. City or country trash collection agencies can also guide consumers in proper disposal methods.
Since 1999, more than 165,000 Americans have died from prescription painkillers alone. Curbing the epidemic of addiction will involve greater public awareness, intervention, and controlling access to drugs. Preventing a drug from falling into the wrong hands begins in every home — in the medicine cabinet.
Pat Barone, MCC is a professional credentialed coach and author of the Own Every Bite! bodycentric re-education program for mindful and intuitive eating, who helps clients heal food addictions.