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‘I can't be an addict. I am.’ Over-the-counter medicine abuse: a qualitative study
  1. Richard J Cooper
  1. ScHARR, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Richard J Cooper; richard.cooper{at}


Objectives Over-the-counter (OTC) pharmacy medicines are considered relatively safe in contrast to prescribed and illicit substances, but their abuse and addiction potential is increasingly recognised. Those affected represent a hard to reach group, with little known about their experiences. Study objectives were to describe the experiences and views of those self-reporting OTC medicine abuse, and why medicines were taken, how they were obtained and associated treatment and support sought.

Design Qualitative study using in-depth mainly telephone interviews.

Participants A purposive sample of 25 adults, aged 20–60s, 13 women.

Setting UK, via two internet support groups.

Results Individuals considered themselves ‘addicted’, but socially and economically active and different from illicit substance misusers. They blamed themselves for losing control over their medicine use, which usually began for genuine medical reasons and not experimentation and was often linked to the cessation of, or ongoing, medical prescribing. Codeine, in compound analgesics, was the main medicine implicated with three distinct dose ranges emerging with decongestant and sedative antihistamine abuse also being reported. Subsequent use was for the ‘buzz’ or similar effects of the opiate, which was obtained unproblematically by having lists of pharmacies to visit and occasionally using internet suppliers. Perceived withdrawal symptoms were described for all three dose ranges, and work and health problems were reported with higher doses. Mixed views about different treatment and support options emerged with standard drug treatment services being considered inappropriate for OTC medicines and concerns that this ‘hidden addiction’ was recorded in medical notes. Most supported the continued availability of OTC medicines with appropriate addiction warnings.

Conclusions Greater awareness of the addiction potential of OTC medicines is needed for the public, pharmacists and medical prescribers, along with appropriate communication about, and reviews of, treatment and support options, for this distinct group.

  • Qualitative Research
  • Primary Care

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