Prescription opioids, medication, antibiotics with many bottles of pills in the background. Concepts of addiction, opioid crisis, overdose and doctor shopping

(© Kimberly Boyles -

BOSTON — The opioid epidemic in the United States has become a major health issue. One disturbing statistic for thought: over 42,000 Americans died in 2016 alone due to opioid overdoses, according to the CDC. But, how are so many people getting their hands on these drugs in the first place? It’s all in the family, apparently. A new study reveals that relatives of individuals prescribed an opioid medication are nearly three times more likely to suffer an opioid overdose than others.

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston conclude that access to a family member’s prescription opioids could be a strong risk factor for overdose among people without their own prescriptions.

“When prescriptions are filled and there are extra pills in the medicine cabinet, family members with access to those medications could overdose or become dependent,” says lead investigator Joshua Gagne in a media release. “But few studies have systematically examined and quantified this risk.”

The investigators utilized health care data collected by a large U.S. commercial insurance company between 2004-2015. In all, 2,303 people who had overdosed on opioids were matched with 9,212 controls. All studied individuals had never been prescribed opioids by a doctor.

Researchers discovered that a family member on the same insurance plan being prescribed opioids was associated with a 2.89-fold increase in the odds of an individual without a prescription overdosing. Researchers say accounting for age made no difference, both adults and adolescents were more at risk of an overdose if a family member was prescribed opioids.

Family members on the same insurance plan were analyzed exclusively, and the study’s authors admit that they had no way of definitively determining if each overdose case was actually caused by drugs obtained via a family member’s prescription or illegally. Researchers also weren’t able to determine which family members resided in the same living space, which likely played a role in accessibility.

Gagne and his team hope that their work can help shape preventative measures for fighting opioid abuse, and strongly recommend that anyone who is prescribed opioids to safely and securely store them at home where they will be out of reach from anyone else. They also believe that physicians should only prescribe the exact amount of pills a patient will need, in order to reduce the number of excess drugs being handed out at pharmacies.

“Effective communication by physicians, pharmacists, nurses or public service announcements could increase awareness of opioids as a risk factor for family member overdose. Education is essential for reducing accidental exposure and misuse,” Gagne concludes.

The study is published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

About Ben Renner

Writer, editor, curator, and social media manager based in Denver, Colorado. View my writing at

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