A married mother-of-two has told how she ate almost 100 Nurofen Plus tablets a day after becoming addicted to the codeine they contain.
The 42-year-old said trawling the pharmacies of her hometown to avoid bulk buying at any one store became a "fulltime job".
The addiction left her like a "zombie" and almost ruined her marriage. She is calling for awareness of the threat posed by the pills.
Her revelations come as a medical expert reports a surge in the number of Kiwis addicted to strong over-the-counter pain relief known as codeine analgesics, mirroring trends in the UK.
Capital and Coast Health chief medical officer Dr Geoff Robinson said the problem was a "silent epidemic" and called for mandatory monitoring by pharmacies.
The Kiwi addict, who spoke on condition of anonymity, started taking Nurofen Plus five or six years ago to ease a pain in her leg that had remained undiagnosed for two decades.
She initially followed recommended dose instructions but within two months she was up to two large packets - 96 tablets - a day.
She said they gave her a "high", a "sense of wellbeing" and "quite a buzz".
"It removed the pain from my leg but it also gave me a lot of energy. I could zoom around the house and do all the housework in 10 minutes. It gave me a great sense of euphoria."
She realised she was addicted when she made repeat visits to the same pharmacies. She said it was a wonder she didn't die.
"I used to look like a drug addict basically, because I was. I looked terrible. I had spots all over my face. I was a zombie, nothing ever got done.
"I was so sick, I wasn't eating, I lost weight, I was sleeping all the time. I had bad stomach aches but they were probably ulcers. I couldn't go to the toilet, I was yellow and my skin was disgusting."
She said she spent about $10,000 on the tablets.
Although she realised she needed help, she felt "isolated", "alienated" and too ashamed to talk to a doctor, friends or even her husband.
"I just hit rock bottom. I could hardly get off the couch, I would sleep all day. My husband and kids were away at work and school so they didn't know."
She was eventually confronted by her mother and sister, and then her husband.
"It was then I just broke down and said, 'yes, I do have a problem'. So we worked out how I was going to come off it."
The woman was weaned off the tablets, but not before her addiction had a "devastating" impact on her family, with her husband set to take their children and leave her.
"It took me about three or four gos to get off it. I would start coming off it and tell (my husband) I was doing really well, then I would end up sneaking extra tablets."
Now working and running every day, she's been clean for about three years, takes no other drugs and has regular sessions with a counsellor arranged through Community Alcohol and Drug Services (CADS).
Dr Robinson works in a medical detox unit within Capital and Coast Health and said he saw at least one Nurofen Plus addict a month.
"The people we see are substantial addicts. They are taking up to 40 to 60 Nurofen Plus a day."
Nurofen Plus and similar products contained other drugs such as ibuprofen which could cause bleeding from stomach ulcers and kidney and liver failure in high doses.
"We have had a 20-year-old who had ulcers and needed a blood transfusion because they have bleeding in their stomachs but most [patients] are in their 40s."
Dr Robinson said addicts travelled "considerable distances" to buy tablets from different shops.
He urged codeine addicts to front up for appropriate treatment and called for greater monitoring by pharmacies.
There was enough awareness about P, alcohol and cannabis, but codeine addiction was "a hidden and silent epidemic", said Dr Robinson.
By Carolyne Meng-Yee
July 19, 2009