Health & Fitness

Dr. Wood: Often opioid users have the face of a grandmother

The truth about prescription opioids and addiction

Some people might think prescription opioids are safer than alcohol or illegal drugs, but the truth is they carry serious risks and side effects. Talk with your doctor about your concerns and make informed decisions about pain management together.
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Some people might think prescription opioids are safer than alcohol or illegal drugs, but the truth is they carry serious risks and side effects. Talk with your doctor about your concerns and make informed decisions about pain management together.

The opioid epidemic is complex, and there are a number of related health concerns. One of them is the number of people dying because of accidental opioid overdoses from prescription pain killers or heroin. Another is the growing number of people who are misusing or are addicted to opioids, which can lead to being diagnosed with an opioid use disorder (OUD).

When you picture who is affected by opioids, it’s important to know that anyone can be impacted. One group who are strongly impacted, for example, are older adults — our senior citizens. The National Poll on Healthy Aging done by the University of Michigan found that about 1 in 4 older adults (29 percent) filled a prescription for an opioid pain medication within the past two years.

Local data from the Washington state Prescription Monitoring Program shows that, sorted by age group, Thurston County residents age 55 and older had the highest rate of opioid prescriptions last year. A higher use of opioids among older adults makes sense when you consider that as we age, we are more likely to have arthritis, cancer, surgery, or other conditions that may result in pain.

Though health care provider practices are improving, the national Healthy Aging poll showed that only 43 percent of older adults age 50-80 recalled having a conversation about the risk of overdose with their health care provider when they were prescribed an opioid medication.

If you use opioid medication or have a family member who does, you should know the signs of an overdose. The key signs that a person may be overdosing include:

  • They will not wake up.

  • They have slow breathing or are not breathing.

  • They look pale, ashy or have cool skin.

  • Their lips or fingernails are blue.

  • If a person is not breathing, or is unconscious, you need to call or text 911. You may have an opioid overdose emergency.

Do not hesitate to ask your health care provider questions about the risk of overdose and safe use of any opioid medication. You can also get more information at http://stopoverdose.org/

If you have prescription opioid medication at home, you also should think about safe storage while in use, and safe disposal of the medication when it is no longer needed. Both safe storage and safe disposal can keep drugs from getting into the wrong hands, and protect our environment from contamination.

It’s important to note that prescription pain killers have many different brand and generic drug names. One of the better-known brand names is OxyContin, but there also is Percocet, Vicodin, Dilaudid, Opana and more. Make sure these and any other prescriptions in your home are not easy for others to get access to. To safely store medication, consider these tips:

  • Do not leave the bottle in your purse, vehicle, or places where people or children could run across them.

  • Make sure opioid medication is kept in a bottle with a child-resistant lid.

  • At home, keep your opioid medication in a location where a pet, grandchildren, teenagers, other family members or visitors would not likely see it or easily get to it — ideally, a cabinet or drawer with a lock.

Some of us personally know people affected by the opioid epidemic, but whether this is the case or not, all of us can help ensure prescription opioids do not get into the wrong hands.

This month, I encourage you to participate in National Prescription Drug Take Back Day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 27 at the Tumwater Police Department, 555 Israel Road SW. Safe disposal is free.

You also can find a safe medicine return site online. There is no cost to drop off your unwanted or unused prescriptions. http://www.takebackyourmeds.org/

Reach Dr. Rachel C. Wood, health officer for Thurston and Lewis counties, at 360-867-2501, woodr@co.thurston.wa.us, or @ThurstonHealth on Twitter.
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