Majority of parents with children at home don't lock up prescribed opioids, study finds

PHOTO: Oxycodone pain pills prescribed for a patient with chronic pain in Norwich, Connecticut, March 23, 2016. Communities nationwide are struggling with the unprecedented opioid pain pill and heroin addiction epidemic.PlayJohn Moore/Getty Images
WATCH As Drug Overdose Deaths Escalate, Opioids Continue to Be the Top Killer

Despite rise in opioid dependency in the U.S., a majority of parents who have prescription opioids at home do not report storing them safely, according to a new study published today in the journal Pediatrics.

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Just 32 percent of parents of young children under the age 7 reported storing prescription opioids safely -- in a latched or locked location -- researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said in the study. The percentage was even lower for parents of older children between the ages of 7 and 17 -- 11.7 percent. Parents who had children in both age groups leaned closer to those with young children; 29 percent reported storing the medications safely.

"Our work shines a light on the pervasiveness of unsafely stored opioids in American homes with children," says study lead author Eileen McDonald, MS, faculty with the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, said in a statement today. "Unsafely stored opioids can contribute to accidental ingestions among younger children and pilfering by older children, especially high school students."

The study included data from 681 adults with children in the home who had been prescribed opioid medications. They were first recruited over the phone and then took a web survey about how they stored the medications.

While illicit opioid drugs like heroin and fenatnyl have grabbed headlines, deaths from prescription opioid drugs have more than quadrupled since 1999, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Most parents indicated that they are aware of the dangers these drugs pose to children, with 70 percent of respondents saying that locking up the opioid drugs "is a good way to keep my child from getting the medication" and "would prevent my child’s friends from getting the medication," according to the study.

But parents with younger children expressed higher concern about storing their prescription opioids. Almost three-quarters of parents agreed with the statement, "Children can overdose on OPRs more easily than adults," but those with younger children rated the risk higher on the scale.

Dr. Donna Seger, the executive director of the Tennessee Poison Center and a professor of clinical medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said many parents know they should keep prescription drugs out of reach for very young children, but may not have the same concerns for adolescents.

"It's not just a risk in toddlers, it's a huge risk in adolescents," Seger said, explaining that teens may start to experiment with different drugs at home. "The medicine cabinet is going to be an important place to get them."

Opioid use among adolescents has continued to be a problem. Prescription opioid drugs are the second most common drugs used by 12- to 17-year-old children, after marijuana, according to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

"We know that teens who use these drugs recreationally frequently get them from homes where they are easily accessible, increasing their risk for addiction and overdose," McDonald said in the statement.

Seger added that teens' nervous systems are still developing, making them more "vulnerable" to drug use.

Overdose fatalities among adolescents and young adults doubled between 1999 and 2008, according to study authors.

Parents may be aware of the dangers around opioid drugs, Seger said, but still feel "my kid wouldn't do it" and therefore don't take extra steps to lock up medication.

Understanding the many risks associated with opioid medication, even those that are prescribed, is important for parents of both young children and teens, the study authors and Seger said.

"Both adolescents and parents believe they are prescribed drugs, so they must be safe," Seger said.

The study points to the need for more research on ways to store opioids more safely in homes and promoting those methods, especially in homes with children.

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