When people think of drug addiction, they are probably thinking of illegal drugs like heroin or cocaine, not painkillers that can – in low strength – be bought over the counter in any high street pharmacy. Co-codamol is a medicine containing codeine, an opiate like heroin or morphine. This part of the medication can be physically and psychologically addictive.

The other active ingredient in co-codamol is paracetamol. Paracetamol is not generally considered addictive, as users do not build a tolerance or physical dependency.

It is possible to develop a psychological dependency on paracetamol, though taking too much can lead to an overdose. This can be a particular risk if you take different medications containing paracetamol and don’t realise how much of the painkiller you have had overall.

Why are Some Prescription Drugs Addictive?

There are several different types of prescription drugs. Opiates are often used in pain management, while stimulants provide a feeling of alertness and focus.

Sedatives can be used to help people relax or sleep, while hypnotics can also be used to induce sleep and for anaesthetic purposes. Anti-anxiety drugs can help with anxiety by producing a tranquilising effect.

Of these, opiates are often seen as the most dangerous and addictive and have generated the most headlines. Reports from the US, in particular, have described an ‘epidemic’ of deaths from opioids, including prescription painkillers.

The US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) said that the fastest growing drug problem in the US was not heroin, cocaine or even methamphetamines but prescription drugs.

There are similar concerns in the UK, with a recent Government update warning that: “Considerable concern has been raised regarding prescribing rates of opioids in the UK and the awareness of healthcare professionals and patients of the risks of dependence and addiction.” It added that patients should be made aware that prolonged use of opioids could lead to drug dependence or addiction, even when used at “therapeutic doses”.

Codeine, the addictive part of co-codamol, is an opiate that works similarly to morphine and oxycodone – which may be better known under the brand names Oxynorm and OxyContin.

Unlike paracetamol, which is believed to work by blocking ‘chemical messengers’ in the brain that tell us we have pain, codeine affects pain receptors in the central nervous system. The brain blocks pain signals to the rest of the body.

While codeine is not as strong as morphine or oxycodone and is generally present in smaller amounts in the mixed medicine co-codamol, it can still be physically and psychologically addictive.

Long-term use can see the user building up a tolerance, meaning they have to use more to get the same effect. They can also develop a physical dependency, meaning they could suffer withdrawal symptoms when the drug is removed. They can also develop a psychological addiction to the feelings of euphoria, relaxation and drowsiness that codeine can produce.

Treatment Options for Co-codamol Addiction

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as a “chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain”. This helps to explain why addiction is so difficult to beat through willpower alone.

Addiction can be successfully treated, though, using evidence-led treatments and techniques. Generally, this includes a managed detox to clean out the system accompanied by a range of therapies that aim to address the psychological aspects of the addiction.

This can be done on an outpatient basis – the type of treatment offered via the NHS – but there are limitations. You will largely have to manage your own detox and attend low-intensity therapy and counselling sessions at a clinic or similar venue.

Residential rehab is a more effective way of treating serious addictions as you will be in a safe and secure environment where you can focus on your recovery, away from any triggers, temptations and stresses and with no access to the drug.

You can undergo a medically supervised detox and receive the best care and support 24/7. The treatment can also be delivered in a compact and intensive format that takes much longer than a more strung-out outpatient programme.

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Detox and Therapy Treatments at Ocean Recovery

Detox is the process or period of time during which your body metabolises the elements of the drug already in your system. This is when you ‘get clean’, and the process is often accompanied by intense cravings and unpleasant, potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

These can be managed more effectively in a controlled environment like rehab or a dedicated detox clinic, where you can get medical supervision and treatment if needed. Prescription medications like Subutex can also help with some of the symptoms if found to be appropriate.

Detox is important, but it is only the first part of the battle. You will also need to deal with the psychological aspects of the addiction and develop strategies to help you keep away from the drug (or from replacing it with any others) moving forward.

This is where therapeutic techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), counselling and group therapy come in. You will also receive 12 months of free aftercare to provide vital support in the weeks and months following the main rehab programme.

Help for Prescription Drug Addiction

If you think you have an addiction or any issue with prescription drugs or other substances, it’s always best to seek professional help as soon as possible. Your GP is an excellent first step, especially if they are involved in prescribing the drug.

For serious addiction problems, though, rehab is generally the most effective treatment. We can provide confidential help and advice, even if you decide rehab is not your best way forward. If it is, we can start the admissions process rolling and help you move forward toward a more positive and drug-free future.

John Gillen - Author - Last updated: February 13, 2024

John is one UK’s leading professionals in the addiction recovery industry. Pioneering new treatment techniques such as NAD+ and ongoing research into new therapy techniques such as systematic laser therapy, John is committed to providing the very best treatment for people throughout the UK and Europe. During his extremely busy schedule, John likes to regularly update our blog section with the latest news and trends in the industry to keep visitors to our site as well informed as possible on everything related to addiction treatment.

Dr Adel Ghaly

    Dr Adel Ghaly - Clinical Reviewer - Last reviewed: December 11, 2023

    MB BCh, Psychological Medicine (Substance Misuse Psychiatry) from 2002

    Dr Adel Ghaly is a registered Doctor who is a specialist psychiatrist. Dr Ghaly gained an MB BCh in 1982 from Assiut University and has since become a substance misuse specialist and psychiatrist. After gaining his qualification in Psychological Medicine (Substance Misuse Psychiatry) in 2002, Dr Ghaly has worked in hospitals and as a specialist trainer recognised by the GMC.