Americans have a lot of painkillers sitting around in their homes, and some of these unused drugs can pose dangers to children and others.

In fact, of those who take any kind of prescription medication, more than 80 percent of people in a recent Consumer Reports poll said that they don’t lock up their narcotic painkillers, such as Oxycontin, Percocet, and Vicodin—and nearly three-quarters said they had children living at home. That translates to more than 16 million households across the U.S. where powerful opioid painkillers sit unsecured in medicine cabinets, closets, and kitchen drawers. 

The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted the telephone poll of a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 U.S. adults in June 2015.

The results are concerning because too many of those potentially deadly drugs wind up in the wrong hands. Pain relievers are by far the most commonly abused prescription drugs, with more than half of people who abuse them reporting that they got the drugs for free from family and friends, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

The results can be tragic. More than 47,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2014—more than during any other year on record, according to a new report released last week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The number one culprit? The same painkillers that some people don't keep locked up. In fact, the CDC report found that overdose deaths from prescription pain relievers, which have skyrocketed in the last decade, also reached record highs—up 9 percent in 2014 alone.


Learn more about the dangers of prescription painkillers.
 

“Leaving narcotic drugs unsecured is like having a loaded gun lying around,” says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports' chief medical adviser, noting that when it comes to prescription pain relievers, there’s little margin for error. Using someone else’s medication, taking too much, or combining it with the alcohol or certain other medications can be a fatal mistake. 

Safer Strategies for Dealing With Prescription Painkillers

“You may not think anyone would get into your medication, but you’d be surprised,” says Lipman. “It could be anyone from an inquisitive youngster to someone seeking the drugs to sell or for recreational use.”

Teens who have abused prescription medications, for example, cite friends and their parents' medicine cabinet as the most common sources for the drugs.

Lipman advises taking two steps for safer, more responsible handling of narcotic drugs at home.

  1. Lock them up. Secure prescription pain relievers and all other medications up and out of sight of visitors and children in a locked cabinet or container. Don’t keep loose pills in bags or containers in your purse, luggage, or office drawer and, when you travel, keep medications in a locking case.

  2. Discard unused pills properly. You can take unwanted medication to drop-off spots at pharmacies, hospitals, clinics, and long-term care centers any time of the year, with no appointment needed. Or you can mail it in to collection centers in special envelopes that are available from pharmacies and other designated locations. To find out where to drop off pills or pick up a mailer, call the DEA’s Registration Call Center at 800-882-9539 or go to deadiversion.usdoj.gov and search for “drug disposal.” 

    If there’s no drop-off spot in your area and you don’t want to use the mail-back option, the Food and Drug Administration recommends flushing them down the toilet. That’s usually a bad idea because of the possibility of contaminating the water supply and possibly harming aquatic life. But the danger of someone accidentally getting his or her hands on opioids make flushing an acceptable option if you have no other choice.

Taking leftover pills from an old prescription can be dangerous. Read more surprising facts about prescription pain relievers.

Pain Pill Dangers: Avoid Deadly Addiction

Editor's Note: These materials were made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by a multistate settlement of consumer fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).