Non-prescription medicine misuse, abuse and dependence: a cross-sectional survey of the UK general population

Niamh A Fingleton, Margaret C Watson, Eilidh M Duncan, Catriona Matheson

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Non-prescription medicines (NPMs) can be misused, abused or lead to dependence, but the prevalence of these problems within the UK general population was unknown. The aim of this study was to estimate the prevalence of self-reported misuse, abuse and dependence to NPMs.

A cross-sectional postal survey was sent to 1000 individuals aged ≥18 randomly drawn from the UK Edited Electoral Register.

A response rate of 43.4% was achieved. The lifetime prevalence of NPM misuse was 19.3%. Lifetime prevalence of abuse was 4.1%. Younger age, having a long-standing illness requiring regular NPM use and ever having used illicit drugs or legal highs were predictive of misuse/abuse of NPMs. In terms of dependence, lifetime prevalence was 2% with 0.8% currently dependent and 1.3% dependent in the past. Dependence was reported with analgesics (with and without codeine), sleep aids and nicotine products.

Given the increasing emphasis on self-care and empowering the public to manage their health with NPMs, the findings highlight the need for improved pharmacovigilance of these medicines to maximize benefits with minimal risk. Healthcare providers need to be aware of the potential for misuse, abuse and dependence, particularly in patients with long-term illness.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)722-730
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Public Health
Issue number4
Early online date2 Feb 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2016

Bibliographical note

This study was supported by the Society of the Study of Addiction in the form of a PhD studentship awarded to NF.

Correction published 13 July 2017


  • epidemiology
  • primary care
  • public health


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