April 22, 2020

Safeguarding opioids a concern as children may have more access with families at home due to COVID-19

A new poll from the Vanderbilt Center for Child Health Policy found that few Tennessee parents take steps to safeguard opioids at home, an important concern when children are spending more time indoors due to COVID-19 social distancing recommendations.

Tennessee parents take steps to safeguard opioids at home, an important concern when children are spending more time indoors due to COVID-19 social distancing recommendations.

More than 50% of parents who filled a prescription for an opioid in the past five years kept leftover medication in the home, according to poll results.

The Vanderbilt Child Health Poll asked a statewide sample of 1,100 Tennessee parents about their concerns related to children and prescription opioids, which include medications like Vicodin and Percocet. Seventy-eight percent of parents said they worry about children becoming addicted to prescription opioids, yet only 32% are concerned about their own children’s opioid use.

Results from the first release of the poll found that 70% of parents believed that opioids were prescribed too frequently in Tennessee. Parents are accurately reflecting an important problem in their communities, as Tennessee has the third highest rate of opioid prescribing rate in the country – more than four prescriptions written for every five people in the state. The poll found that over the last five years, nearly 1 in 7 Tennessee children and more than 40% of parents filled a prescription for an opioid.

“This is the first release of the Vanderbilt Child Health Poll, which we designed to gauge the concerns of Tennessee parents. In the coming months we continue to highlight issues important to parents,” said Stephen Patrick, MD, a neonatologist at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt and director of the Center for Child Health Policy.

“This release of the poll identified a blind spot for parents. Parents perceive that opioids are risky to children, but not their children. This may be one reason why we found that most parents are not taking an easy step to protect their children – properly disposing of leftover opioids in their homes,” he said.

The Vanderbilt Child Health Poll found that few parents are taking steps to limit children from gaining access to opioids in their homes. Two-thirds (66%) of children and 41% of parents who filled an opioid prescription in the last five years had leftover pills, and when asked what parents did with leftover opioids, 51% kept them at home, 18% threw in the trash, 15% flushed down the toilet, 13% returned to a pharmacy or doctor and 5% used for other family members.

When asked where parents were concerned children might gain access to opioids, few were concerned it was in their home – 3% were very concerned, 5% were concerned, 21% were not very concerned and 71% were not at all concerned. With Tennessee children home from school, as well as social, athletic, and other activities outside the house, opioid access in the home is of particular concern during the coronavirus crisis.

Why It Matters

For some children and teenagers, accessing leftover opioids at home marks the beginning of their opioid addiction. National surveys have found that the majority of teens who misuse opioids do not get them from their own prescription, but rather obtain them from friends, relatives and medicine cabinets. Safeguarding opioid medications in all homes across the state is an important step in protecting younger generations from opioid use disorder.

Protecting children by disposing of leftover opioids is not difficult. Many pharmacies have boxes where parents can return unused opioids without any questions being asked. Parents can visit to find a location near their home. If parents cannot find an opioid disposal site in their community, or are staying at home due to COVID-19, extra opioids can be flushed down the toilet. However, parents should not dispose of opioids in the trash and should never give them to family members or friends.

“Parents have not gotten the message that left-ver opioids in their homes are dangerous. Providers and pharmacists need to remember to give clear instructions to patients on how to dispose of opioids, and policymakers need to enhance efforts to promote and enable safe disposal of opioids in communities statewide,” Patrick said.