Suburban campaigns aim to curb prescription drug overdoses
A parent has a tooth pulled and fills a prescription for a 90-day supply of Vicodin.
Taking three pills in the days after the surgery, the patient soon feels fine and stores the pills unlocked in the medicine cabinet -- just in case.
It's a common behavior but a bad idea, say those behind new campaigns against prescription overdoses.
Overdoses kill nearly 44,000 people nationwide each year, the leading cause of injury death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And about half those people die from prescriptions.
In an era consumed by concern about heroin abuse, the prescription deaths prompt worry among medical professionals and emergency responders. Not only can prescription drugs be deadly, but they also serve as a gateway into such illegal narcotics as heroin because of simple economics and the power of addiction.
"This is a medical issue that's becoming more and more of a problem," said Dr. Don Teater, medical adviser for the Itasca-based National Safety Council. "The prescription pain pills in particular are the ones that are driving these increases."
The safety council is asking doctors to decrease prescription of opioid pain medications, which decrease the intensity of pain by affecting signals in the brain. And locally, a new prevention campaign is educating residents about keeping medicines secure to prevent misuse.
Combined, experts say these efforts have potential to decrease prescription overdoses in coming years.
Says Naperville Fire Chief Mark Puknaitis, "We're going to get a handle on this,"
Doctors prescribe four times as many opioid pain medications than 15 years ago, Teater said, which led to overdoses overtaking car crashes as the top cause of injury death.
Suburban statistics show prescription drug overdoses remain a steady problem.
In Naperville, officers responded to 29 prescription overdoses last year and 25 so far this year -- including one death. And in Schaumburg, police have responded to 18 prescription overdoses this year -- including 7 deaths. That's up from 16 last year with 6 deaths.
In DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties, there have been 102 deaths so far this year; there were 132 deaths reported last year.
Police say some people get their deadly dose from their doctor, some by swiping it from a relative or friend and others by buying it, as a black market flourishes for pain pills, anti-anxiety meds, cough syrups, sleeping pills and stimulants to treat ADD or ADHD.
Leaders of an overdose prevention campaign launched this month in Naperville are encouraging parents to monitor and lock prescriptions, store them somewhere other than the obvious medicine cabinet, and dispose of them at a safe takeback location.
"When we leave even over-the-counter drugs out without thinking that anything can happen, we are an accidental drug dealer," said IdaLynn Wenhold, executive director of KidsMatter.
Falling into that role could come with guilt and legal consequences, as passing prescriptions to someone to whom they're not prescribed is against the law, the safety council's Teater says. "And also it might start somebody else off in their addiction."
In October, the National Safety Council introduced a section of its website dedicated to the "prescription drug overdose epidemic."
Its roots are in the mid-1990s, Teater says, when doctors were encouraged by medical organizations to begin monitoring pain more closely and doing more to relieve it.
"The medical associations were saying we should be treating pain better and we thought (opioid pain medications) were safer than they were," Teater said.
So doctors started prescribing them more often. One unintended consequence is patients often become more sensitive to pain after taking opioids such as Percocet or Oxycodone than they were before going on the meds, Teater said. So when patients stop the pills, they sometimes think they're still in pain and need more, he said. Then an addiction can start.
"When it comes to medications, people have this false idea that they're safer than they are," said Dr. David Lott, medical director of addiction services at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health in Naperville.
That a prescription comes from a doctor provides a false security blanket to those who might be looking to self-medicate as a solution to stress, anxiety, depression or struggles in their life, he said.
These self-help motivations are troubling to addiction experts because they point to a society burdened by mental problems and needing escape. Loading up on sedatives, cough syrup or cold medicine typically won't produce a psychedelic high, doctors say, but it can induce a feeling of drowsiness or a lift to normalcy.
"It's not like they're doing this to get high always," Teater said. "And for many of the ones who take a pill at a party, it isn't a high -- it gives confidence. It treats anxiety, and depression will relieve the stresses of the world."
Push for fewer drugs
If people do more to ensure their prescriptions aren't stolen or misused, fewer prescription overdoses will occur, says Naperville Police Chief Robert Marshall. "If you get rid of these prescription drugs," he said, "you're less likely to graduate to more dangerous drugs such as heroin or cocaine."
But prescription abusers could turn to heroin to feed an addiction because it's cheaper -- and possibly simpler -- to score a $5 or $10 bag of heroin than to deal with doctors and regulations, he said.
Prescriptions and over-the-counter medications, excluding liquids or needles, can be dropped off at the Naperville police station or any of the city's 10 fire stations. These are just a few of the increasing number of sites that accept medications year-round.
The Solid Waste Agency of Lake County lists pill collection boxes in 23 communities.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart in offers a take-back program at courthouses in Rolling Meadows and Skokie.
For its part, the National Safety Council's campaign is focusing on doctors. Working with the American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Family Physicians, Teater said the safety council is reversing the guidelines from the mid-1990s.
"The real key to prevention is to teach doctors how to treat pain better without using these opioid pain medications," Teater said. "And that's possible to do."
One combination found as effective or more effective than opioids is taking one ibuprofen, such as Advil, with one acetaminophen, such as Tylenol. Teater said it's safer and takes advantage of how the medications work differently on a chemical level. These over-the-counter drugs can be taken up to six times a day, he said.
"I really think in the next three years, the great majority of doctors are going to recommend ibuprofen and acetaminophen instead of Percocet," Teater said. "With fewer drugs around, I think it will become less of a problem."
But it also will take a cultural change to decrease prescription overdoses, Naperville prevention leaders say. That can start with empowering residents to realize they can be part of the solution, simply with better care of their prescriptions.
"We want people to join in and say, 'Wow, this is something I can make a difference on in my own home," Wenhold said. "We can all make a difference."
Prescription drug overdose numbers44,000 Number killed by drug overdoses in America each year, eclipsing traffic crashes as the leading cause of injury death.
50% Roughly half of those deaths are prescription overdoses.
4 times Doctors prescribe four times more opioid pain medications than they did 15 years ago.
132 Prescription overdoses killed 132 people in 2014 in DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties.
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Safety Council, county coroners