Guest column by: Mark Hurst, M.D., Director, Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services
Ever heard the maxim, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?” That old adage still rings true today as individuals, families, and communities continue to grapple with the fallout of an opioid epidemic that claims a life of one Ohioan every two hours.
On August 31, the world will come together to recognize International Overdose Awareness Day. It’s a time to get educated about prescription painkillers and other opioids, learn to recognize the risks and warning signs of abuse, safeguard medications, and acknowledge the intense grief felt by families and friends remembering those who have died or suffered permanent injury because of a drug overdose. It’s also a time for individuals to take charge and prevent misuse and abuse before it starts.
Addiction can affect people of all ages; racial, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities; income classes and geographic areas. While it is true that illicit drug use generally declines as people age, older adults are by no means immune from the potentially deadly effects of an opioid use disorder. In fact, individuals aged 65 and older are among the groups most affected by this problem because they often use prescription opioids (powerful painkillers such as Oxycontin, Vicodin, Percocet, etc.) to cope with chronic pain, arthritis, and surgical procedures.
While these medications certainly can be a valuable tool in treating pain and improving quality of life in older adults, it’s worth noting that prolonged use of prescription opioids can carry serious health risks. In fact, nearly two-thirds of Ohioans who died from unintentional overdose had a prescription for a controlled substance within the past year. Beyond the threat of addiction and overdose, extended opioid use can also lead to breathing difficulties, cause confusion, trigger harmful drug interactions and place an individual at an increased risk of falls and other injuries.
Good medicine dictates that patients with pain should receive treatment that provides the greatest benefit. With that in mind, opioids should not be the first-line therapy for chronic pain outside of active cancer treatment, palliative care and end-of-life care. Evidence suggests that non-opioid treatments, including over-the-counter pain relievers (such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen) and nonpharmacological therapies (such as physical therapy, exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy) can provide relief to those suffering from chronic pain, and are much safer.
So what can older adults and their caregivers do to take charge and prevent addiction and overdose?
The number one thing we recommend is to talk to your health care provider about ways to manage pain that don’t involve prescription opioids. If, after weighing all the options, you and your physician agree on a treatment plan that includes prescription painkillers, here are some other commonsense steps to prevent misuse, abuse, and overdose:
- Only use prescription medications as directed by your healthcare professional. Never use more medication or take it more often than instructed. Also, be sure to ask your health care professional about side effects such as sedation, nausea, or vomiting;
- Never mix medications with alcohol and be sure to alert your doctor and pharmacist to other medications you are taking to prevent harmful interactions;
- Never share or use someone else’s prescription medication, or sell your medications;
- Always store your prescriptions in a secure place out of the reach of others, including children, family members and others who visit your home;
- Safely dispose of unused and expired medications. Many communities hold prescription drug take-back events or maintain permanent collection boxes to properly dispose of medications and prevent diversion and misuse. Most people who develop problems with painkillers first get the medication from family of friends. The leftover medications that you have in your medicine cabinet could be taken by someone visiting. This could start them down the path of addiction, so it is important to dispose of old medications for your safety and theirs;
- Learn to recognize the warning signs when someone you know is in danger. Indicators include: frequent physician visits, depression/anxiety/post-traumatic stress, aggressive behavior to obtain prescriptions, personal or family history of substance abuse, sharing medications and increasing dose without discussing with a healthcare provider.
- Visit TakeChargeOhio.org to learn about the risks of opioid abuse and overdose. If you think you or a loved one is misusing pain medication there IS help. Ohio maintains a toll-free helpline: 1.877.275.6364.
While these steps are not a panacea, safely managing pain and preventing overdose deaths starts with YOU. As we pause August 31 to remember the nearly 5,000 individuals who died last year from unintentional overdoses, following these simple steps can greatly reduce the risk of accidental overdose and help you enjoy a healthy and productive life.