Nearly 12 million adults in the UK were prescribed potentially addictive drugs such as sleeping pills, painkillers and antidepressants last year, a government study has found.
The report, from Public Health England (PHE), said that too many people were being prescribed medicines that can cause dependence.
The report revealed that half of the people prescribed the medicines under review had been taking them for more than a year, and more than a fifth had been taking them for three years or more. Women are prescribed the drugs in question 1.5 times more often than men.
Five classes of medicines commonly prescribed by doctors were reviewed – including anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants and opioid painkillers – and it has been revealed that many patients struggle to come off the drugs.
The study found that withdrawal symptoms among patients can even include intensified anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
The issue is so prevalent that PHE has called for a dedicated helpline to be set up in order to help patients struggling to come off prescription drugs.
Which drugs should you watch out for?
PHE looked at opioid pain medications for non-cancer pain, antidepressants, benzodiazepines, such as diazepam, which are often prescribed for anxiety and insomnia; Z drugs (for treatment of sleep problems) and gabapentinoids, which are often used to treat epilepsy.
The study measured a one year period which ended in March 2018.
It found in that one year 17 per cent of the adult population were given anti-depressants, 13 per cent were given opioids, three per cent gabapentinoids, three per cent benzodiazepines and two per cent were given Z drugs.
The biggest numbers are for antidepressants, with PHE saying that around 930,000 adults had been taking this kind of drug for three years or more.
However, as long term antidepressant prescription is often necessary, this was not highlighted as a major cause for concern. Patients who need to come off antidepressants are often helped by a doctor to lower their dose over time to minimise risk of withdrawal symptoms.
The prevalence of prescription of opioids was the main cause for concern. A total of 540,000 people were found to be regularly taking opioids, including drugs like codeine, tramadol and morphine.
However, experts said that opioids were not always any more effective than paracetamol or ibuprofen, and are almost never effective when used for periods longer than three months.
It was also pointed out that benzodiazepines – such as diazepam – are not recommended for use for longer than 28 days.
How common are these prescriptions?
The prescription of opioids and benzodiazepines is dropping, according to the report, but this comes only after a steady rise for many years prior to that.
The study found that poorer people were more likely to be at risk of long term prescription and more people were on the medicines for protracted periods in the north east and north west of the country.
What should you do if you are concerned?
As well as advocating for the helpline, PHE urged the public not to stop taking their drugs in light of the review but to speak to their GP if they had concerns.
The report also recommends new guidance for GPs and better information for patients on the risks and benefits of the medicines.