Relying on prescription medication can easily become a drug addiction

Popping pain killers everyday may be an indication that you have a drug addiction.

While many people become addicted to recreational drugs, it is also possible to get hooked on medication prescribed by your doctor.

With awareness on drug addiction this week, 10-26 June, the South African Society of Psychiatrists (Sasop) reports that there’s been an increase of 7% of rehabilitation admissions for addiction to prescription drugs.

Misuse of pharmaceutical drugs for non-medicinal purpose increased especially during the Covid-19 pandemic due to the impact of lockdowns on global supply chains that also affected illicit drug trafficking networks.

Pain management expert and Sasop member Dr Shaquir Salduker said opiates are the most addictive substances known to humankind.

“Just because these drugs are prescribed by physicians or stocked in pharmacies does not make the risk of addiction any less, nor are they any less likely than illicit drugs to cause long-term permanent damage to the individual’s brain function, overall mental and physical health, and the ability to be a productive member of society,” said Salduker.

Widely available over the counter for pain, coughs, colds, and flu, codeine is the most commonly abused opiate in South Africa.

“Codeine, when swallowed, metabolises into morphine and morphine is a close chemical relative of both opium and heroin. When an individual consumes large amounts of codeine, they are effectively consuming large amounts of morphine, with the same effect as consuming heroin,” he said, adding that overuse of prescription drugs can have similar long-term effects like “hard” drugs on brain function.

“Addiction to prescription medications when an individual consumes the drug for non-medical reasons to the point of physical and psychological dependence affects the ability to function at work, socially, and in relationships.”

Mood, concentration, and thinking abilities are all impacted, as well as your mental and physical health. In the long term, it can also cause organ damage and the risk of premature death by overdose.

Salduker said prescription drug addictions were difficult to pinpoint as the medication is initially prescribed for a genuine medical reason and addiction develops gradually over time. They are also harder to deal with as the drugs are easily available and cheaper than illicit street drugs.

“It is not unusual for patients to be self-medicating with OTC [over-the-counter] or low-schedule codeine-containing drugs such as combination painkillers or cough mixtures, and to have developed an incredible level of tolerance.”

While some may not be aware that their self-medication has reached the level of addiction, others border on the illegal by badgering doctors to issue prescriptions with no diagnosis, persuading pharmacists to dispense without a prescription, “go doctor-shopping and pharmacy hopping”, or even steal doctor’s prescription pads and forge the doctor’s signature.

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