Why Is It Easier to Get An Opioid Than An Antibiotic?

Riddle me this – how come it’s easier to get a prescription for Vicodin than one for antibiotics? 

I’m serious. During this winter of the flu and other assorted maladies I heard people talking about trying to score a “Zpack (Zithromax) with such a sense of devout urgency that they sounded like an addict trying to hustle another fix. One friend who just knew, without a doubt, that she had strep recently shared her harrowing tale of doctor shopping for a Zpack. 

At first she played by the rules and went straight to her primary care doctor for an antibiotic prescription, but she was shut down. The doctor uttered that dreaded sentence we’ve all been told before – “It’s a viral infection and antibiotics won’t help.” Apparently, she flunked the rapid strep test. 

Undeterred and 100 percent convinced that the doctor was incorrect because in her words, “he didn’t do a throat culture” she went to her allergist and pretending she had a sinus infection asked if perhaps some antibiotics would do the trick. The allergist also said “no can do.” 

Finally, she was reduced to going to an “sketchy” Urgent Care that she said “made the DMV look like the Four Seasons.” The place also wouldn’t take her insurance and demanded payment up front before she was even given a clip board to fill out her health history. It was worth it though because $135 in cash later she finally secured the coveted Zpack.

Now, let’s contrast that travail with my most recent doctor foray. Two weeks ago, due to overestimating my brute strength, I jacked my left hip. It was so bad wearing underwear became optional. The act of lifting my foot to enough to get underwear on fell into the category of “never going to happen.” Due to the fact that my mobility was being severely hindered I decided to go to the doctor.  

When I got to the appointment I didn’t even have to disrobe and I had a chunky sweater on. All I did was indicate where the pain was and do some different body moves followed by yes, no, ouch and OUCH! The visit didn’t take long and before a medical professional could say, “you yanked some muscles around your hips and back” I was about to be given a pain prescription. I swiftly turned it down because I’m skeptical of extra strength Tylenol.

But as I slowly shuffled out of the doctor’s office I thought about how easy that was to get some hard-core opioid pain medication in a five-minute or less doctor’s appointment. It also got me back on my wisdom teeth rant. 

When my son got his wisdom teeth out he got a prescription for Vicodin. I asked the nurse why the RX was for so many pills. Wouldn’t you just do, say four, and if a kid had more pain than that a parent should call the oral surgeon’s office because there could be an infection? Why, just as a general rule, prescribe more than two dozen pills of a hard-core opiate to a 16-year-old? 

It turns out I was on to something because research from the Centers for Disease Control has shown that more half of the opioids prescribed for wisdom teeth removal go unused by the patient and I’ll let you conjecture what happens to a lot of those unused pills.

I have no problem with doctors following strict protocol for who does and does not warrant an antibiotic prescription because antibiotic resistant infections sound Zombie Apocalypse adjacent. What I don’t understand is why the medical community doesn’t use the same tenacity when it comes to prescribing opioids. It shouldn’t be harder to get Amoxicillin than OxyContin.

9 thoughts on “Why Is It Easier to Get An Opioid Than An Antibiotic?

  1. Stephanie says:

    I had a ski accident several years ago and separated my shoulder mildly. Yes, it hurt, but I was given, by the lodge “quack shack” 30 hydrocondones!! 30! I took exactly 2. It floored me that they gave me that many. I certainly agree with kids (and adults) abusing and selling these, there needs to be some serious tightening of these prescriptions.

  2. Teresa Cobb says:

    When I had foot surgery, the doctor wrote a scrip for 30 days worth of pain pills. I asked him why he wrote it for so many; I was worried that I was going to have a lot of pain during recovery. He told me that he used to make the scrips for a week’s worth of pain pills with the option of a refill, but when the legislature changed the laws and required patients to be seen in the office to get a refill on pain meds, their practice changed their prescribing method.
    It sounds horrible, but that doc said that it was really difficult to see that many more patients for simple scrip refills. Also, many of his patients were elderly or on crutches after surgery, and it was a definite hardship to get into the doctor.
    I think they counted on their patients to have good sense.

  3. Joanna says:

    I must live in a tough area–impacted wisdom teeth removal gets zero narcotics; rotator cuff repair merited only 4 days worth (though I’m allergic so I opted for an in-line nerve block); extraction of a damaged tooth to prepare for implant was also not narcotic worthy (alternating Tylenol and Advil didn’t even dent the pain) and forget about back pain!!
    I agree, though, that it shouldn’t be hard to treat an infection. They just seem to go overboard with fear. It isn’t that antibiotic resistance isn’t real, but seriously. Just wait, though, narcotics will be impossible to get for people who really need them in the near future. And that is criminal.

  4. cspschofield says:

    I suspect that doctors are more diligent about antibiotics than opioids because they know the antibiotic resistance problem is real and suspect that the ‘drug crisis’ of the week is hogwash.

  5. edith says:

    Honestly, I’m kind of horrified by your friend hunting about for antibiotics, rather than just insisting that her doctor do another test — either truly screen for the flu, or send a throat culture out for the slower/more accurate test. Because, what IF the actual trained doctors were correct, and she didn’t actually need antibiotics? Why screw with your body’s internal fauna more than necessary, if it’s not actually going to solve the problem? I say this as someone just two weeks out from serious antibiotics for a very nasty sinus infection that was trying to destroy my ears as well.

    • cspschofield says:

      “insisting that her doctor do another test”

      Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it. Maybe she’s reached the end of her rope and hasn’t the stamina left to argue. Maybe she knows this doctor, doesn’t really have the option to leave him, and doesn’t want to deal with a Messiah Complex (all too goddamned common with doctors).

  6. Addictionaffliction says:

    This is how I became addicted to opiates. I was given an obscene amount of painkillers while waiting for my wisdom teeth to be removed and by the end of it, I WANTED the pills. I was predisposed to addiction due to my history of depression, anxiety, bulimia and losing a parent at a young age in a car accident. Anyway, 8 years later and I’m still an addict. Great post and blog.

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