Are you Addicted to Painkillers?

There has been much speculation in the media in the last few days, regarding the allegations that Nigella Lawson was addicted to cocaine and painkillers. For many of her devoted followers, these revelations come as a huge shock and surprise, as the self-penned ‘domestic goddess’ was seen as the perfect wife and mother.

The addictive properties of cocaine have been well documented, but some people may not know that certain over-the-counter pain remedies can be as addictive as Class A drugs.

Nigella Lawson

Nigella Lawson

The painkillers that we are referring to typically contain codeine, which is a derivative of opium, used to treat moderate pain in which simple painkillers are not effective. Small amounts of codeine, between 8mg – 12.8mg are available in combinations with aspirin, cough syrups, ibuprofen and paracetamol.

Codeine phosphate, which is the pure form of the drug, can only be prescribed by a doctor and is available in larger doses of 15mg upwards.

Codeine provides a feeling of warmth, calm, sleepiness and well-being, and is highly addictive. It is so addictive that methadone (the synthetic opiate substitute, used to wean heroin addicts off heroin) is also used to treat people addicted to codeine.

People can become addicted to codeine quite by accident; they could be prescribed co-codamol (codeine and paracetamol) for any number of ailments, from migraines to joint pain to neuralgia.

Obviously not every person who is prescribed a codeine based painkiller will become addicted, but those people to whom the drug reacts by releasing a sense of extreme calm and well-being, and have an addictive personality, may be more sensitive to the effects that others.


There are two problems with taking regular amounts of codeine; the first is the effects from the codeine itself. Codeine lowers your blood pressure and can suppress normal breathing, therefore increasing the risk of respiratory arrest.

The second risk is when codeine is taken in combination with another painkiller, such as paracetamol, and the user has to take a higher dose to experience the buzz of codeine. You are then prone to the side effects of the combination drug, which could include liver failure, stomach ulcers, or kidney damage.

So how do you know if you are addicted to codeine? Markers to watch out for are if you have to take the drug on a daily basis for more than three days at a time, you could have a problem.

If you look forward to taking the drug, and if you take it despite the fact that you are not in pain you are certainly at risk of developing an addiction, if you are not already addicted. If you are visiting different chemists or pharmacies to purchase over the counter forms of codeine, because you are getting recognised, then that is definitely addictive behaviour.

© Alamy

If you think you may have a problem with codeine addiction, you should visit your doctor, who, if they are prescribing you with codeine may stop, or they may work with you to reduce the amount you are taking every day.

They could also recommend you visit a drug rehabilitation clinic, where it is possible you might be put on a methadone course. Methadone works by relieving the craving for codeine, but does not give you the buzz.

You should expect to have to visit a chemist on a daily basis to receive your methadone, and you may have to take it on the pharmacy premises.

This is because it is classed as a Class A drug and it is illegal for anyone who does not possess a prescription to carry it around. You should also inform the DVLA that you are taking methadone, as you could find that your driving licence is invalid while you are on a methadone treatment programme.

The first step towards recovering from codeine addiction is to visit your doctor; it is not a shameful secret that you should keep, and as the media has shown, even celebrities can suffer from it.

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