How the tablets I bought at the local chemist turned me into a drug addict (Feminax & codeine-based medicines)

(Daily Mail Feb 29,2000)

LAST WEEK, comedian Mel Smith revealed that for seven years he was addicted to over-the-counter painkillers. He is surely just one of many. Jane, 28, from Manchester, became addicted to Feminax tablets sold to relieve period pains. Here, Jane, who wishes to remain anonymous because of her new career, tells BONNIE ESTRIDGE just how easy It is to get hooked on a non-prescription drug.

COMING to terms with the fact that I am a drug addict is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do —yet my addiction is perfectly legal. Despite never having taken an illegal drug in my life I am now on a rehabilitation programme very similar to that of a heroin addict.

The drug that I became addicted to is Feminax, which is considered a pretty run-of-the-mill solution for period pains. It can be bought without a prescription in any chemist.

But this pill is every bit as addictive, and potentially lethal, as many illegal drugs because it contains codeine, an opiate from the same drug family as heroin, morphine and cocaine.

I had quite painful periods in my teens and started taking ‘Feminax.’’ For the first few days of my period I would take the recommended dose, six tablets a day.

It seemed to sort me out, but I did notice how relaxed and "spaced out" I would feel. By the time I was 17,1 had stopped taking the pills as my periods were no longer troublesome.

The problem really started when I was 20 and was promoted at work, which often meant stressful 12-hour days. I began to worry that I just couldn’t cope. I remembered that lovely relaxed feeling that Feminax had given me and decided to see if it would help now.

Because you could buy these pills over the counter, I assumed they were safe. Before long, I was taking about ten a day.

After six months, I felt burned out. My mother could see how stressed I was and was quite happy for me to give up work, go on the dole and look for a new career. But I ended up sleeping a lot and lying around the house doing nothing.

And I couldn’t give up Feminax — I felt I still needed the pills to make me feel happy. I wouldn’t have known where to get drugs such as ecstasy or cocaine even if I’d wanted to. All I had to do was pop into a chemist for my fix.

I was soon up to 20 pills a day— a whole packet — and I’d become as furtive as a Junkie. I visited all the chemists in the area in rotation because I knew that bulk-buying would make anyone suspicious.

My mother had started noticing my "habit" and was asking me why I was taking Feminax, so I had to hide them. I’d also make sure they were hidden in my handbag when I went out.

By this time, I was spending most of my dole money on Fernmax. I took my pills in two lots of ten, after lunch and before bed. As soon as I gulped them down I would have a lovely warm sensation in my stomach. Then, about 20 minutes later, I would feel nicely relaxed.

This carried on until I was 25 when, after yet another row with my parents about me taking Feminax, I realised I really was wasting my life away.

I enrolled on a course at the local college and, was able to cut down to ten pills. But I went back to 20 in the summer break.


AROUND May 1998, I started taking more pills again and my health began to suffer. I was pale and vacant and had put on a lot of weight. In eight years on Feminax, I had gone from eight stone to more than 14 stone.

When I started being sick after meals, I realised I needed help. My stomach lining had been ruined by the drugs but if I tried to keep off the pills for a day I became desperate. Mum urged me to see the doctor and eventually I agreed. I had finally recognised that I was addicted.

The incredible thing was that when I did go to my GP and everything came out, he told me I was addicted to the caffeine in these pills. He said nothing about the most addictive ingredient, codeine.

But I did not really listen to what he said because I didn’t want to give up my drug. I started having terrible stomach pains when I ate and took more pills to kill the pain.

I was now taking 20 Feminax during the day and a packet of 16 Nytol — an antihistamine-containing drug, also available over the counter — every night. I dragged myself back to college last September. But five hours of study a week left plenty of time to indulge my habit.

Just two weeks ago my mother brought home a copy of the Big Issue with an article about a woman who was addicted to pills containing codeine.

I identified with her completely and was excited to read that she had completed a rehabilitation programme successfully.

For the first time, I really wanted to stop. Through the magazine I contacted Over-count — the support network for over-the-counter medicine addicts — and had a long talk with its founder, David Grieves. David told me that I should have a liver function test because I may already have extensive liver damage. (I have an appointment soon.)

He said that if I didn’t stop taking the pills now I would be dead within four years. That shocked me to the core.

David explained that my GP would have to arrange for me to have a five-week course of daily prescriptions of codeine sulphate to help me withdraw from the Feminax — like a heroin addict taking methadone.

It’s early days, but I really feel that I can kick my habit.

Now, I feel outraged that such potentially addictive drugs are so easy to buy.

The packet may tell you not to exceed the recommended dose but, once hooked, your brain tells you otherwise.

DAVID GRIEVES, Project Director of Over-Count, says: ‘I started Over-Count in 1994, having been addicted to a cough mixture containing codeine and ephedrine for 17 years.

‘I have 8,216 people on my database who are, or have been, addicted mainly to codeine-based medicines. Two-thirds of these are women addicted to pain-killing tablets and a third are men addicted to liquid-based cough and cold remedies. ‘A drug test after taking a normal dose of medicines containing over-the-Counter codeine or ephedrine would prove positive for narcotics or amphetamines. ‘Many cough and cold remedies have compounds of codeine (an opiate) and ephedrine (amphetamine-type properties). Sleep-aids such as Nytol contain diphenhydramine, which is an antihistamine with sedative side-effects.

‘The effects of taking these kind of drugs to excess, or for long periods, can be gastro-intestinal problems, inflammation of the stomach, chronic constipation, abdominal bloating and liver damage. Ingredients you should look out for on the packet are:

Codeine: an opiate found in painkillers and cough syrup. Ephedrine or pseudephedrine a broncho-dilator with amphetamine-type effects. Diphenhydramine an antihistamine with sedative side-effects.

* Over-Count: 01387 770404