The United States consumes more prescription opioids than any other country, and a huge percentage of the pills that we’re prescribed ultimately go unused. All those overstuffed medicine cabinets can pose real risks to families and communities.
The dangers of opioid overprescribing
There are legitimate and appropriate medical uses for opioids. However, opioids also pose serious risks. That’s why opioid prescriptions should always be carefully considered and frequently evaluated to prevent diversion, misuse, addiction, or accidental overdose. But too often, that’s not the case.
In 2016, 11.6 billion opioid pills were prescribed—enough for every adult and child in the United States to have 36 pills each. And in that same year, an estimated 3.3 billion of those pills went unused.
On average, someone who is prescribed opioids after surgery receives 85 pills. One review published in JAMA Surgery found that anywhere from 42% to 71% of prescribed opioids ultimately go unused by the patient.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 6.2 million Americans misused prescription drugs in 2016. Where did those pills come from? Much of the time, the survey found, they came from family, friends, or the home medicine cabinet.
How you can reduce risk
Know your options before you take home an opioid prescription
Not every ache or pain needs to be managed by opioids, and opioids are never your only pain management option. The next time you need to have a surgical procedure or a pain assessment, talk to your doctor about non-opioid or alternative methods to handling your pain, like physical therapy, acupuncture, and injections or nerve blockers.
Not sure how to start that conversation? This guide lists 12 key questions that can help you navigate the discussion. Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself, and to push for answers to each of these questions.
If you and your doctor do decide on an opioid prescription, you can still take precautions. Ask your doctor to prescribe the lowest effective dose, for the shortest duration of time. You can always request a refill later if you really need it. It’s safer to take fewer pills home in the first place.
Be smart about storing your medication
Don’t hang on to old pills, just in case. Always promptly dispose of medication that’s not being actively used for a medical purpose. If you are currently taking potent medications like opioids or benzodiazepines (like Xanax), consider locking them up securely in a safe or a medication lock box.
Participate in drug take-back days in your community
The DEA organizes National Prescription Drug Take-Back Days every year. Use the DEA’s collection site locator to find a drug disposal drop-off location near you. Many of these locations are law enforcement offices, but there’s no risk of arrest or police involvement on take-back days. The process is designed to be safe, convenient, and anonymous.
Local communities also host their own take-back days throughout the year. Check with local police departments to see if there’s a date coming up at a location near you.
Dispose of unused medications at home
Many prescription drugs can be thrown away in the garbage. To do this, first be sure to remove the medication from its original containers, then mix it with something undesirable like coffee grounds, soil, or even cat litter. Put the mixture in a re-sealable bag or container, then discard.
Some medications should be flushed down the toilet. If this is the case, it will say so on your prescription’s instructions. You can also check the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s list of prescription drugs that should be disposed of with flushing. Opioids, like oxycodone and morphine, are included in this list. (For fentanyl patches, as soon as you remove them from your skin, fold the sticky sides together before flushing them.)
In most regions, risks to the environment and water supply from flushing medications are negligible. But if you'd rather not flush your medications, further at-home disposal options include DisposeRx, which is available at Walmart, and Deterra.
Other ways to drop off unused medications
Select Walgreens pharmacies permanently offer safe medication disposal, which makes the process as simple as dropping your old medication into a mailbox-style kiosk within the store. Use this locator to find a Walgreens near you that offers this service.
Certain DEA facilities and local law enforcement offices also accept medication drop-offs, safely and anonymously, year-round. Use this locator to find a facility near you.