AUSTRALIANS who have been buying codeine-containing painkillers over the counter at pharmacies have until February 1 to make alternative treatment plans as these medications will become script-only.
Painaustralia chief executive Carol Bennett says the dangers posed by these common medications are not well enough known and the decision by the Therapeutic Goods Administration to make codeine prescription-only will protect Australians from accidental codeine-related harm.
The new regulations will bring Australia into line with the US, UK, Japan, Germany and more than 20 other countries.
Medical authorities say 100 people die each year in Australia from codeine overdoses - the equivalent of two deaths a week.
Codeine is a well-known pain relief treatment, with one in three Australians aged 14 or over reporting having used an over-the-counter codeine combination product in a 12-month period.
The Pharmacy Guild and Pharmaceutical Society of Australia estimate two million people use codeine medications for conditions including chronic pain.
However, according to Painaustralia, codeine itself is a poor analgesic when compared to other over-the-counter pain medication.
The addictive opioid - sold as a number of preparations including Nurofen Plus, Panadeine Forte, Mersyndol and Codral - has remained available without prescription in Australia despite serious harms associated with the drug.
It is not recommended people use the drug for more than three days at a time, but some are taking codeine for longer and at higher doses than they should.
People with long-term chronic pain are at high risk of codeine misuse, with more than one in three codeine-related deaths involving a person taking them for ongoing pain.
A recent Australian study found prolonged use (over several years) and misuse resulting in hospitalisation is common, with an average hospital stay of 5.9 days for affected patients.
It also found people with chronic back pain and headaches are consuming up to five times the recommended daily dose of over-the-counter codeine (on average 28 tablets a day for almost two years).
"Codeine is not being removed from sale; the access arrangements are changing to give more protection to consumers," Ms Bennett said.
"For people with pain there are other alternatives, such as a combination of ibuprofin and paracetamol, which is very effective in relieving pain but not addictive."
Ms Bennett advises people who have been using over-the-counter medications for an extended period to have a thorough assessment by their GP to identify the cause of the pain and other ways to manage it.
The Painaustralia website provides information on managing pain without relying on painkillers.