In recent years, more Americans have died from drug overdoses than from car accidents. Most of these overdoses are associated with opioids.
The country’s opioid addiction is a public health crisis leading to early death and destroyed lives. For many Americans, opioid addiction begins with abuse of prescription pain medications. An estimated four out of five people addicted to heroin started out with prescription pain medications.
Children and youth are not immune to this epidemic. From 2000 to 2015, the number of young adults in Whatcom County seeking substance abuse treatment and reporting opiate use increased by 442 percent. Nationally, Oxycontin use by 12th graders increased 40 percent in three years. A quarter of teens report that they have inappropriately used prescription drugs at least once.
In Whatcom County, a group of community organizations are taking action by creating a public education and prevention campaign to address opiate addiction in our community. Led by the Whatcom County Health Department, Whatcom Has H.O.P.E. (Heroin and other Opioid Prevention and Education) is now getting underway with the launch of a new website. WhatcomHope.org provides a one-stop informational and educational resource about opioid addiction, prevention and response.
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I encourage you to check out the website and to follow these recommendations related to opiate use:
Keep your medications safe. If you have prescription pain medications in your home, keep them locked up. Several pharmacies across Whatcom County are now distributing lock bags with opioid pain medication prescriptions. Lock bags can help keep medications out of reach, alert you in the event the bag is tampered with and convey to children the dangers of these drugs. Pharmacy locations offering lock bags can be found at WhatcomHope.org/landing-pages/lockbags.
Safely dispose of unused or unwanted medications. An estimated one-third of medications are never used. In a 2016 survey of Whatcom County residents, 63 percent of parents with children living in the home reported having expired, leftover or unwanted medications in their homes. One-third of these respondents reported that they didn’t know what to do with these drugs.
When you have unused or expired medications in the home, they can be abused or lead to accidental poisonings. Two-thirds of teens who abuse prescription pain medications report that they got the drugs from friends or family members.
We recommend disposing of unwanted medications through a take-back program. Currently, a number of pharmacies take back medications that are “non-controlled substances,” which include most prescription tablets and capsules, creams and ointments, vitamins or supplements, and over-the-counter medications.
“Controlled substances,” including prescription pain medications, can be taken to the Bellingham or Ferndale police departments or dropped off during occasional take-back events. Options for the disposal of unwanted medications are expected to increase in the coming months, so watch the WhatcomHope.org website for more disposal options.
Talk to your health care provider about alternative pain management options before taking prescription pain medications. Occasional pain is a fact of life. Chronic pain, however, can be debilitating and life-changing.
Research increasingly indicates that opioid pain medications are not as effective for treating chronic pain as we thought. Prescription pain medications mask the pain and make long-term pain management more difficult. We are learning that other options for chronic pain management, including gentle movement, acupuncture, yoga and mindfulness training, can be more effective in coping with pain.
Consider Naloxone. If you or someone you know is addicted to opiates, consider getting a Naloxone kit. Naloxone is a medication that reverses the effects of an opiate overdose. In the event of an overdose, a life-saving dose of Naloxone can be administered while you call 9-1-1 for emergency medical assistance. Naloxone is available at several sites across Whatcom County.
Recognize the signs of overdose. The earlier someone can get help, the more likely that person will survive. In Washington state, the “Good Samaritan Law” protects both a person who reports an overdose and the victim from arrest and prosecution for drug possession and use. It does not, however, protect either person from arrest for other crimes or outstanding charges.
More information about all of these topics and resources is available at WhatcomHope.org. Follow and join the campaign to save lives and prevent addiction in our community.
Lisa Nelson is Unity Care NW pharmacy manager and a member of the Whatcom Has H.O.P.E. Task Force.