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How over the counter painkillers can become a life-threatening addiction

A lot of people take painkillers to ease aches and pains, but a woman from Milton Keynes has told ITV Anglia how she became so addicted to them that she was taking upto 30 tablets a day.

Leni White-Knight from Milton Keynes, was eventually referred to a centre for heroin addicts and prescribed a substitute drug to help her withdraw from codeine.

"Nausea, the sweating, the shaking. It was the most horrendous experience of my life. I didn't sleep for so long. I couldn't eat. I lost about two stone in a week. I couldn't even drink water. I was hallucinating. It was terrifying."

– Leni White-Knight
How over the counter painkillers can become a life-threatening addiction Credit: ITV Anglia

Her addiction was to a common medicine she bought over the counter. Leni was a professional violinist.

She started taking extra strength codeine to treat her chronic shoulder pain.

"And it was the only thing that I had taken that had actually worked so I thought this is great, this is something I can take to deal with the pain but it was a slippery slope."

– Leni White-Knight

Codeine is an opiate, from the same family of drugs as heroin.

Short-term it can block pain signals but within days the body can become dependent.

"Probably at the most severe time I was taking 20 to 30 tablets a day, I was trekking around pharmacies and buying boxes and boxes of these tablets just to be able to get through the day. Not to get high or anything or to feel anything particularly but just not to get sick."

– Leni White-Knight
How over the counter painkillers can become a life-threatening addiction Credit: ITV Anglia

Such a high dose could have easily killed her if Leni hadn't built up such a tolerance to the drug over 15 years.

By law, pharmacies are only allowed to sell one box of extra strength codeine at a time

But that doesn't stop addicts visiting multiple shops

"When we do sell things with codeine in and other things liable to misuse we do ask all the questions that we can and highlight that they are only for a short-term use. Because it's sold legally rather than illegally, I think people can assume in their heads that there are no risks associated with it. Which is not the case. Any medicine carries risks and any medicine that you buy over the counter, paracetamol for example if taken in excess is not a good idea."

– Jody Butler, Pharmacist
How over the counter painkillers can become a life-threatening addiction Credit: ITV Anglia

In 2017/18 the UK spent nearly 570 million pounds on over the counter painkillers, consuming nearly 16 per cent of the world's share of codeine.

Leni was eventually referred to a centre for heroin addicts and prescribed a substitute drug to help her withdraw from codeine

"I had to go and pick it up every morning from the chemist and stand in front of the chemist and take the drug because it has a street value, standing in front of a shop full of people who are looking at you like 'oh you must be another heroin addict' because you are taking this tablet so your life just stops and it makes you feel even more ashamed than it did before."

– Leni White-Knight
Leni White-Knight Credit: ITV Anglia

After 15 years of addiction, Leni is no longer dependent on codeine. She wants to warn other people of the dangers.

Click below to watch Becky Jago's interview with Harry Shapiro from the charity DrugWise