Opium-based pills are now killing more people in US than gun crime

WHERE America leads, we follow. Thanks to The Land Of The Free we have iPhones, jazz words like ‘dude’ and ‘cool’, and an insatiable appetite to sue anyone who does us wrong. We have also taken their lead in many health matters – both good and bad. Today, a sinister problem most is brooding in the States that is killing increasing numbers of people, and we need to know about it else go along with them down the yellow brick road.
The dangerous road they are on is paved with prescription drugs. Across the pond there has been an unprecedented surge in deaths due to overdose of painkiller medicine. The drugs doing the damage are called opioids, and they are now the leading cause of accidental death Stateside, eclipsing even road traffic accidents and shootings. In 2015 alone, 15,000 Americans died from painkiller overdose – a number that rose a terrifying 72 per cent in just one year. The musician Prince was one such person who lost his life to an opioid earlier this year.
Opioids are potent painkillers that are unmatched in their ability to numb pain. You can buy them over the counter at a pharmacy, the most popular of which is codeine. It is branded under various names: co-codamol, Paramol, Panadol, Paracodol, Migraleve, Solpadeine Plus, Syndol, Codis, Nurofen Plus, plus a host of cough syrups. Higher strength and more potent opioids, such as tramadol and morphine are only prescribed by doctors.
Taken for short periods of time these drugs can be a lifesaver. Gone are the days when you would wake up from surgery in agony and no longer need anyone writhe on a stretcher after slipping a disc. They also help to give quality of life to those who are seriously and terminally ill. Doctors are doling out more than ever before – tramadol prescriptions went up tenfold between 1994 and 2009 – and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
For far too long we Brits have had a stoical ‘grin and bear it’ attitude to suffering: Patients ashamed to admit they are in pain and doctors scared to treat it. Mercifully, the days of us all having straight-faced stubbornness like Geoff Boycott are being hit to the boundary. Many of us know only too well how that untreated pain suffered in silence will sap all the joy out of life. 
There is a sting in the tail to this potent pain relief, however. They are all derived from opium, the key ingredient in heroin. And while the codeine you can buy as tablets and sachets at the supermarket pharmacy are far weaker than what addicts inject into their veins, they are nevertheless easy to get hooked on. 
Taking too many gives feelings of warmth and well-being, accompanied by a buzz of calm, relaxation and sleepiness. Much like the class A narcotic, the potency wears off and you need increasing doses to get the same effect. Research suggests that millions have become dependent on the ‘legal high’; one national poll showing that a third of 18 to 25-year-olds take over-the-counter medicines every day. But this isn’t a free lunch: all opioids can cause stomach pains, constipation and dizziness. After taking codeine, you should not operate any machinery and driving while in a painkiller-daze puts you at risk of a ‘drug driving’ conviction.
Taking opioids for long periods and gradually upping the dose can put your life and long-term health in serious jeopardy. Paracetamol and ibuprofen should always be the first port of call when in pain; over-the-counter codeine should be used for no more than three days. Chat with the pharmacist before making a purchase and if you need more then arrange to speak with your doctor. Medicines exist to get rid of our suffering, not to make it worse.