Pharmacies across the UK may be banned from selling codeine and other opioid-based painkillers over the counter.
Codeine — the pain-killing substance found in co-codamol and Nurofen Plus — is a highly-addictive opioid.
The UK’s drug regulator, Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, is now considering making all opioid painkillers prescription-only.
The move comes after more than a dozen people died or were hospitalised over the past four months after buying illegal fake prescription drugs.
And it follows new draft guidance which recommended GPs don’t prescribe opioids for chronic pain because they are ‘harmful’ and cause addiction.
Pharmacies across the UK may be banned from selling codeine and other opioid-based painkillers over the counter (stock picture)
The MHRA told Pulse that it will consider ‘reclassification’ of codeine products while reviewing the safety of them being sold over the counter.
A spokesperson said: ‘The MHRA is keeping the safety of OTC products containing codeine under review.’
They added the body ‘will consider other interventions, including the possibility of reclassifying all opioid-based painkillers as prescription only, as necessary’.
Over-the-counter codeine products are labelled as only to be used for a maximum of three days, the MHRA warned.
However, there are no regulations or laws to stop someone from continually buying pills with low doses of codeine.
SURGE IN FAKE PRESCRIPTION DRUG DEATHS PROMPTS RARE NATIONAL ALERT FROM HEALTH OFFICIALS
More than a dozen people have died or been hospitalised over the past four months after buying illegal fake prescription drugs.
Public Health England is tracking around 30 cases where information is not yet fully available.
The health body issued the alert about blue pills being wrongly sold as benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and diazepam, which can be prescribed by doctors to treat anxiety and insomnia.
Public Health England added that some of the pills, which are mostly blue but come in other colours, can stain people’s mouths and may be marked with: DAN 5620, T-20, TEM 20, Bensedin and MSJ.
One man who took a T-20 pill spent four weeks in a coma afterwards. He told The Guardian: ‘They wiped me out. Don’t buy them, don’t take them.’
Opioids, or opiates, including codeine, morphine and methadone, are normally prescribed by doctors to treat pain associated with certain medical conditions or following surgery.
They can be very effective short-term. However, when taken for longer than prescribed, or when abused, they can cause severe harm.
Opioids work in the same way as the brain chemicals endorphins, acting on receptors within the brain that are in the region responsible for pain and pleasure.
Opioids mimic natural endorphins are released to fight pain and to induce feelings of pleasure, but they are much more powerful.
These intense feelings of pleasure that can hijack the reward centre in the brain of some people, making them want to take the drug again to replicate the experience.
Around 5million adults a year receive prescriptions for opioid painkillers in Britain, with one in eight of the population dependent on the drugs.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock last year promised to help patients hooked on opioid painkillers, fears of a US-style opioid crisis.
It followed a surge in use of the drugs in the UK — with opioid prescriptions soaring by 60 per cent in the past ten years.
Mr Hancock announced all opioid medications would have to carry a clear warning on their labels, stating that they can cause addiction and contain opioids.
According to official statistics, around 11,500 people are admitted to hospital a year for overdosing on opioids.
Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show codeine deaths increased from 131 in 2016 to 156 in 2017 — an increase of nearly 20 per cent.
Mr Hancock said last year: ‘I refuse to let this escalate to the level seen in the United States.’
Around 400,000 people in the US are estimated to have died after overdosing on opioid drugs between 1999 and 2017.
The move follows a ruling by NICE on Monday that doctors should stop prescribing painkillers to millions of patients with chronic pain.
NICE said that there was ‘little or no evidence’ that common painkillers including codeine, ibruprofen and paracetamol ‘made any difference’.
The watchdog added that ‘even short-term use of opioids could be harmful for a chronic condition’.
And it warned in draft guidance still up for consultation that patients could easily become dependent on the pills.