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Addiction 'not so rare' Abuse of over-the-counter drugs is rife. Could you be at risk of this 'respectable addiction' asks JENNY ELLIS.

Byline: JENNY ELLIS

BRITAIN lost one of its favourite comedians when Mel Smith died of a heart attack, aged 60, earlier this year.

A host of stars and fellow comedians paid effusive praise to the Not The Nine O'Clock News funny man but behind the glowing tributes was a sad tale of addiction.

Mel, pictured, had twice been treated for burst stomach ulcers after developing a dependency to Nurofen Plus, a mixture of ibuprofen and codeine.

He admitted to swallowing 50 tablets a day to ease the pain from gout.

But Mel's "respectable" addiction to over-thecounter drugs is not as unusual as you might think. Reaching for a painkiller is the quick fix many of us use for a headache.

In fact we buy an estimated PS530m of painkillers in the UK each year and there's a sinister, more dangerous side to our pill popping culture. Addicts can take between 20 and 30 pills daily, or the equivalent in cough syrup, and codeine dependence is widely called the "secret addiction" as users appear to maintain normal lives as their habit takes hold.

People can be hooked with astonishing speed. In 2005 the pharmaceuticals industry brought in voluntary guidelines for over the counter medication including codeine. These involved the addition of addiction warnings to packets stating: "Can cause addiction. For three-day use only." In the same year packs were restricted to 32 tablets, which is now the legal maximum for codeine painkillers sold over the counter. But addicts determined to get their supplies will often visit many chemists.

Of course, OTC products containing codeine are safe and effective when used according to the instructions. But there is a risk of addiction if used for longer periods or at higher doses than stated on pack. So, why is this drug so addictive? Dr Kostas Agath, Medical Director of drugs charity Addaction, says: "Codeine is an opioid, a member of the same class of drugs as heroin and methadone. All opioids are addictive and codeine is no exception."

Opioids are among those drugs capable of activating the part of the brain that researchers refer to as the "reward circuit", the area where the chemical dopamine is produced.

If drug taking is rewarded then it's likely the behaviour will be repeated. Luckily, there is help out there. Dr Agath says: "The good news is there is treatment from dependence on codeine. Addaction can help those who have an addiction problem with codeine. After a confidential discussion with a member of our staff, the treatment package involves the prescribing of substitute medication for a short time; the identification and treatment of any causes of physical pain; and addressing any psychological and social problems underlying the misuse of the drug."

Signs of codeine addiction | Persistent drowsiness | Fatigue | Complaints of itchy skin | Loss of appetite | Excessive sleeping | Bluish tint to lips and fingernails | Nausea and dizziness | Uncontrolled muscle twitching | Withdrawal from social activities and hobbies

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Over-the-counter painkillers are addictive, with people hiding the fact they take up to 30 pills a day
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Oct 29, 2013
Words:507
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