The painkiller codeine is readily available in pharmacies across the UK. In low doses, it is available over-the-counter as tablets, usually in combination with paracetamol, and in some cough mixtures. Higher doses and stronger versions are only available by prescription.

Codeine is often prescribed to manage pain for which other drugs such as paracetamol or ibuprofen have proved ineffective. Some situations for which it might be prescribed could include back pain, pain management after minor surgery, or to manage the pain from a throat infection such as laryngitis. As well as treating pain, it can also produce feelings of drowsiness or happiness – a ‘warm fuzzy feeling’. It is this that could eventually lead to codeine addiction in some individuals.

Anyone is At Risk of Codeine Addiction

When codeine is prescribed, the doctor will give very specific instructions as to how it should be taken. However, even if these instructions are strictly adhered to, there is still a risk of becoming addicted to codeine, as one pharmacist has (anonymously) shown.

He spoke about how easy it is to recognise those patients who have become addicted. They will seem to be in a rush, not listening to the pharmacist explain how to take their medication, and what side effects to look out for; they just want to get out of the shop with their drugs as quickly as possible. He knows what drugs they have been prescribed, and how often they come back for their prescriptions. The other reason he can recognise them, he said, is because he recognises what they are – because for thirty years he was addicted too.

The body quickly builds up a tolerance to the effects of codeine, so to achieve the same effect, a higher dose is needed. This is why codeine is normally only prescribed for short periods; if taken over longer periods of time, the risk of addiction increases.

For our pharmacist, his problems with codeine began in his twenties, not long after he graduated from university.

Addicted Immediately

He was prescribed codeine for stomach pain. With hindsight, he says, he should have been given something different – an anti-spasmodic drug to relieve spasms in the intestines – but instead, he was prescribed palfium, a very strong drug of the same family as codeine, but much stronger, which is no longer available in this country.

He realised, looking back, that he was addicted to this medication from the very first dose. Although he did not experience feelings of euphoria, taking the drug made him feel as though life was better. At the end of the month-long course, he went back to his doctor to ask for more but was refused.

Easy Access to a Substitute

Working in a pharmacy, finding an alternative was easy for him. Every day he would take some of the over-the-counter cough medicine that contained codeine, and if he couldn’t get that, then he would take a few pills from the dispensing section. Never enough for them to be missed, and never enough for the effects on him to be noticeable.

He managed to maintain the outward appearance of a smart, successful pharmacist; good at his job and successful. But the dosages were increasing, and eventually he was caught stealing the drugs he craved from the pharmacy, and he lost his job.

No longer able to easily access codeine tablets, he needed to find another way to get his codeine fix. So he began forging private prescriptions. Always with a real doctor’s signature, and travelling around the country so as to avoid raising the suspicions of the pharmacies he visited. Eventually, however, he was caught, and the police appeared at his parents’ house, where he was living at the time. A six-month suspended sentence followed, along with a ruling that he could no longer be a practising pharmacist until he could prove he was fit to do so. It was a year until he managed to return to his work.

Negative Impact on Relationships

His behaviour had already brought shame on his family, and it also affected other relationships in his life.

Our pharmacist met his future wife when he was in his late thirties. They married and had a son, but he had not managed to rid himself of his codeine addiction, and it began to impact on their lives together.
To start, she was unaware of his addiction. He would ask her to buy him cough mixture (containing codeine), and it never occurred to her that it was addictive. Over time, his problems became more obvious. Like all addicts, his focus was on getting more codeine, and if he didn’t get it, then his attitude and behaviour would change for the worse. His wife became increasingly worried and gave up her own career to care for him. Her health suffered too. She tried to stop him from getting more of the drug, but after seeking out support for herself, she realised she could not change him.

Positive Outcome

It has been a hard struggle for our pharmacist, he did try to give up codeine several times but kept relapsing. When he eventually did stop taking it, it was to replace it with alcohol. Eventually, thanks to his wife who supported him throughout, he got the help that worked for him. And now, in his own words, life is brilliant.

The road to recovery is not easy, and having the right support available is hugely important to successful recovery. If you or a loved one is struggling to overcome codeine addiction, then Addiction Helper can help you to find the treatment and support that is right for you. Please call us today for more information.

Source: The high street pharmacist addicted to painkillers: Put on them by his own GP, he was hooked for three decades – and forged prescriptions to get his fix (Daily Mail)