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6 Facts to Know About America’s Killer Epidemic

Imagine we’re at a big community gathering. People and families of all ages are there. Daughters, sons, moms and dads. Suddenly 91 of the people unexpectedly die due to an epidemic sweeping the nation.

We’d all be shocked, wouldn’t we? Well, there is a shocking epidemic going on right now in our communities. It claims the lives of 91* Americans every day.

The epidemic we’re talking about is deaths from opioid abuse. The victims of the epidemic likely don’t fit stereotypes. They span the ages from young to old, from the post-graduate educated professional to the blue collar worker to the stay-at-home parent. Many work for a living. Some are students. They come from the country and cities. The thing they have in common is they all abuse opioid pain relievers.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids, including the prescription medications hydrocodone and oxycodone, are derived from the poppy plant, just like another common opioid, heroin. They are commonly prescribed to reduce severe pain after injury or surgery. Pain control is important to help you be comfortable and make a good recovery.

However, opioid abuse, poisoning and deaths have been on the rise across the nation and in Wisconsin. As you can tell from the number of victims, the issue is having a huge impact in our communities.

In Wisconsin during a recent year more people died from drug overdoses than from motor vehicle crashes, suicide, breast cancer, colon cancer, firearms, influenza or HIV. Prescription opioid pain reliever overdoses accounted for nearly half of 843 overdose deaths.

Having an Opioid Prescription Filled

If you find yourself in a situation where you need a prescription for opioids, what should you expect?

Steps are being taken at the state and federal level to rein in the epidemic. To ensure the person who receives an opioid prescription actually receives the medication, Wisconsin has enacted patient ID and permission laws. If someone else will be picking up a prescription for you, even a family member, call ahead to give permission to the pharmacist to give the medication to your designated pick-up person. The call is also a great chance to ask questions you may have about the medication!

You, or your pick-up person, should be prepared to show photo ID. 

If you aren’t sure if you need to fill the prescription, leave it on file with pharmacy. This will prevent it being diverted to another individual who shouldn’t have it.

Later, if you realize you should have the prescription filled, having it on file will streamline the process.

Using a Prescription as Directed

Directions for a typical pain prescription might say, “Take 1 or 2 tablets every 6 hours as needed.”

What does “as needed” mean? It means that the medication should not be taken on a scheduled basis. In this instance, the medication should not be taken every 6 hours, but should be taken no more frequently than every 6 hours AND ONLY IF your pain level reaches the point where you need this powerful medication to reduce it. Unless your provider has directed otherwise, pain medications should ONLY be taken if your pain reaches a moderate level (generally, “moderate level” pain is pain that prevents you from doing basic things, such as getting up to go to the bathroom or eating or sleeping).

The number of pills multiplied by the frequency of “every 6 hours” gives you an idea of how many pills in a 24 hour period you can safely take. In this instance, it’s 4 to 8 tablets in 24 hours. You’re not using it “wrong” if you are not taking it as frequently as the provider has allowed. If your pain isn’t “that bad,” then you need not take the medication.

Reducing Dose

If you find yourself recovering from a significant injury or surgery, take time to discuss plans for pain management with your health care professional. Are there alternative pain treatments you can use? What level and duration of discomfort should you expect as you heal?

Often patients find that after a few days they may only need opioids at bedtime or after therapy, for example. Most can be completely off opioids in a relatively short time, no more than 7 to 14 days in most cases.

Disposing of Medications When Done

Ask your health care provider or pharmacist about how to properly dispose of unused medications. The opioid epidemic is propelled in part by people improperly getting prescription opioids from friends or family members. This is how 70 percent of people who abuse prescription opioids obtain them.

Avoid saving medications for future pain not related to the current injury/illness. If you must store for future use, store them securely (i.e. in a safe).

Staying Informed

Your health care professional and pharmacist are invaluable resources for you in addressing all your questions about prescription drugs, including opioids. Don’t hesitate to ask questions. 

If you’re concerned about pain management, there are a number of options you can explore. If you’re concerned that someone you know has a drug or substance abuse problem, help is available. Don’t hesitate to ask.

* This number includes people who overdose on prescription opioids as well as heroin.

Meet the Author

Sarah Bartel, RPh, is pharmacist at Aurora Pharmacy in Algoma, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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