The drug that suburban mums are secretly getting hooked on.

And it’s likely to cause them some very serious health problems.

It’s mums under 45 who are getting hooked, more and more often. And it all starts so innocently.

Suffering chronic pain from something like migraines or endometriosis, these women go to the chemist and get over-the-counter painkillers. But if they start increasing the dose, they find that the codeine does more than ease their physical pain.

“Once you start to take the dosage outside of the recommended number of tablets per day, you get a sort of sense of wellbeing,” Brisbane addiction specialist Dr Christian Rowan tells iVillage Australia. “So it’s not only giving them pain relief, but it’s giving emotional relief as well.”

Dr Rowan says mums under 45 are a vulnerable demographic, because they often have relationship stresses, financial worries or post-natal depression, as well as the chronic pain they’ve been living with.

The problem is, if they want to keep getting that sense of wellbeing, or euphoria, they have to take more and more painkillers to get the same effect. Dr Rowan says he’s seen women who are swallowing anything up to 80 or 90 tablets a day.

“People do think that if anything is not on prescription and it’s over-the-counter, there’s a greater level of safety there,” he points out.

But they’re wrong, and the warnings on packets of painkillers make that clear.

Women under 45 are often suffering a lot of stress, along with physical pain.

Depending on whether the tablets also contain paracetemol or an anti-inflammatory, overdosing can cause liver damage, stomach ulceration or kidney problems. The damage can be done in a matter of weeks.

Because most of these women don't see themselves as addicts, they don't tend to seek treatment. Often, it's only when they go to the doctor because of the health problems caused by overdosing that their codeine addiction comes out. That's when women who might never have had tried any illegal drugs in their life could find themselves on methadone.


"It’s no different to someone having another opioid or narcotic addiction," Dr Rowan adds.

However, methadone treatment is a "worst-case scenario". Cognitive behavioural therapy can be used on women who aren't on such high doses of codeine.

Dr Rowan says this addiction probably is a bit easier to treat than some others.

"The other illicit drug addictions, people have often got very unstable housing and relationships and employment and those things. But some of these people, they’ve got other much more stable things in their life."

Here's a news story about codeine addiction. Post continues after the video.

It's hard to know exactly how many codeine addicts there are in Australia. Official figures say 1,000 people were being treated for the addiction in 2013, a number that had tripled in a decade. But that represents only a fraction of the real number. Dr Rowan says he personally sees two or three a week.

In 2010, changes were made to the law, putting painkillers behind the counter at chemists and reducing pack sizes. But that doesn't seem to have made much difference to the problem.

Dr Rowan says there are a couple of things that people need to remember. "If they've got a chronic pain condition, they need to seek proper health assistance to get it sorted. And these medications... while they’ve got a clinical place, they’re not without risk."

For any health concerns, please contact your GP.

If you would like to talk to someone about an addition please contact the Alcohol Drug Information Service (ADIS) on the following numbers. ADIS advisors understand the difficulties of finding appropriate drug and alcohol treatment and use their knowledge and experience to assist you.

New South Wales 02 9361 8000 or 1800 422 599

Queensland 07 3236 2414 or 1800 177 833

Victoria 1800 888 236 or 1800 858 584

Western Australia 08 9442 5000 or 1800 198 024

ACT 02 6205 4545

Northern Territory 08 8922 8399 or 1800 629 683

Tasmania 03 6233 6722 or 1800 811 994

South Australia 08 8363 8616 or 1300 131 340

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