File image: New regulations affecting Codeine containing products. Picture: Antoinbe de Ras

It may be legal and readily available – but addiction to it is steadily on the rise and a very real risk to your health.

Codeine – commonly found in cold and cough medicines purchased over the counter – is a gateway drug with consumption levels that are rising across the country.

This is according to a recent study published in the South African Medical Journal and headed by the South African Medical Research Association.

Drug Awareness Week starts this weekend from the 24th to the 28th and in light of this, the Independent Community Pharmacy Association is alerting people to the dangers of codeine addiction. South Africa is one of the few countries world-wide where codeine is still available over-the-counter.

When most people think about drug addiction they conjure up images of shady dealings on street corners. However, the common and accepted route that many people take to obtain an addictive drug involves walking into a pharmacy and buying any number of medicines that contain codeine over-the counter.

According to Jackie Maimin, acting CEO of the Independent Community Pharmacy association, codeine use often starts out innocently enough with the use of codeine-based cough syrups or over-the-counter headache tablets. “Because codeine is less stringently regulated than other opiates such as morphine and oxycodone, acquiring and abusing it is comparatively easy. Though less potent, codeine provides effects similar to morphine.”

“As an opiate, codeine-use has a high risk of its users developing a tolerance and eventually a dependence on it. Although many people begin using codeine to relieve a legitimate condition, regular use frequently leads to abuse as tolerance develops and some codeine users turn to the drug to cope with physical pain and eventually their emotional pain as well,” warns Maimin.

For some people, codeine is only a piece of a larger web of addictions. Sometimes, it is the gateway drug into addiction to other substances, especially other opiates like oxycodone or morphine. Despite the ease with which codeine can be obtained it is still a dangerous and potentially deadly drug that can cause lives to spiral out of control.

“The ICPA recognises that codeine misuse and subsequent abuse is a widespread problem. No accurate statistics exist for codeine abuse in South Africa but it has become common enough, and of enough concern, that pharmacists now limit the amount of codeine an individual may purchase and require a name and address of the purchaser. If these measures don’t stem the tide of codeine misuse and abuse, the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA, formerly the MCC) have indicated that they will consider making codeine products available only on a doctor’s prescription.”

(Adapted from a press release)