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What You Can Do to Prevent Opioid Addiction

picture of Maile ShoulMaile Shoul, Project Manager, Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region

Second in a three-part series.

When Sherry Guyer-Woods was in the throes of her addiction to opioids and alcohol, she obtained opioids many ways, both legally and illegally - she was prescribed Percocet after a surgical procedure, she bought them on the street, and she stole them from friends and family. Her opioid addiction lasted 14 years and included about 25 admissions to a detox program. “I have been clean and sober since March 9, 2017,” says Sherry, who is now a Peer Recovery Leader at the North Quabbin Recovery Center in Athol and spends hours each week helping others access resources for treatment from a substance-use disorder. 

Sherry says that she’s talked to many people who first took opioids after finding them in a family member’s medicine cabinet. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted in 2018 showed that 9.9 million Americans misused controlled prescription drugs. The majority of abused prescription drugs are obtained from family and friends, who often don’t even notice that the medications were missing. Commonly abused medications include opioids including OxyContin, hydrocodone, codeine, and Percocet; stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin; and benzodiazepines such as Ativan, Ambien, and Xanax. Gabapentin is an anticonvulsant drug that is increasingly prescribed for pain, restless leg syndrome, seizures and other conditions, but can also be abused. 

The majority of abused prescription drugs were obtained from family and friends, who often didn’t even notice that the medications were missing.

If you have prescription medication in your home, the more securely it is stored, the less likely it is to be stolen, abused, or accidentally ingested. Medication lock boxes can be found at most pharmacies. They are eligible for reimbursement from flexible spending accounts (FSAs) and health savings accounts (HSAs) and some Boards of Health in Massachusetts offer them for free.

Even if pill bottles are kept in a lock box, pills that are stored loose in the bottle pose a risk as well. It can be hard to notice if pills are missing. In addition, many people have a hard time remembering whether they took their last dose at the correct time; this puts them at risk of taking too much or too little of their medication. 

There are several solutions to this, ranging from simple to high-tech. One solution is to separate your pills into a pill sorter before putting them in a lock box. Most pharmacies, upon request, will package pills in blister packs that separate out pills into daily doses. There are also several automatic medication dispensers on the market that will not only store medication under lock and key and dispense it at the prescribed times, but will send an automatic alert to caregivers, 911 and the police if the machine is unplugged or if someone misses their dose of medication. Tom King, a resident of Athol, said that before using his automatic medication dispenser, he would overuse his medication. A LifePath nurse helped Tom obtain the dispenser, which was covered by his insurance. The machine holds up to 60 doses of medication and alerts him each time it’s time to take it. The device is high-tech, but after his nurse sets it up, it’s extremely easy to use and takes the confusion out of taking and storing medication. 

Many people will keep around leftover prescription pain medication “just in case” they experience an injury. Unfortunately, this puts you at risk of developing an addiction if you take them when you don’t need them and increases the chances that someone else may steal them and develop an addiction or experience an immediate overdose or poisoning. Immediately getting rid of leftover medication will help to keep you and your family safe. 

Getting rid of unwanted medication is a little more complex than disposing of regular household waste, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. The Food and Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District, all recommend bringing your unwanted medication to pharmacies and police departments, most of whom have free, secure collection sites. You can check to see if your police department offers this service here

National Prescription Drug Take Back Day takes place on Saturday, October 26th, 2019 and is sponsored in Franklin/Hampshire and the North Quabbin by the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, in partnership with the DEA. This day is a great opportunity to take a look in your medicine cabinet and bring any medication that you are not actively taking to a disposal site. While the Take Back Day is meant to raise awareness, the vast majority of disposal sites accept medications year round. 

Whenever possible, do not flush your unwanted medication down the toilet or sink. Flushed medications (which are more concentrated than the amount excreted from our bodies after we take them) can end up in our lakes and rivers. Many wastewater treatment systems are not designed to remove medications. Research has shown that certain fish and frogs have experienced altered development or behavior after being exposed to trace amounts of human medication in their environments. 

Mixing unwanted pills with kitty litter or coffee grounds and then throwing them in the trash is not the best option either. In this instance, a pet or wild animal could possibly access the medication. However, if you are unable to access a drug disposal box at your local pharmacy or police station, flushing them or throwing them in the trash is preferable to leaving them unsecured in your home.  

More than one third of adults in the U.S. age 60 or older take five or more prescription drugs on a regular basis. Keeping our medications as secure as possible will significantly reduce the risk that these medications will cause harm to our loved ones. 

If you or a loved one is suffering from addiction, contact the Massachusetts Substance Use Helpline at 800.327.5050 or at For family members of those impacted by addiction, contact Learn to Cope.