The fact that we are in recovery for addiction, does not absolve us from getting sick.

The problem with illness is that it normally makes us feel weak with consequent vulnerability and more prone to relapse. We cannot just take any medication though. Many medications contain addictive, or mind- or mood-altering, substances that we need to stay way clear of. When I was in rehab, I was taught that the following must be avoided at all cost:

  • Ephedrine,
  • Pseudoephedrine,
  • Codeine and
  • Alcohol.

In this article, I hope to give some direction on which medicines are okay to take for day-to-day ailments. I asked my sister, Leata, a Pharmacist, to go through this article and to give her input. I am adding her comments in bold and italics.

She added the following two substances to the ones I mentioned earlier:

  • Phenylephrine (Similar to ephedrine and should also be avoided)
  • Phenylpropanolamine (In the same class as pseudoephedrine, but weaker. Some people are affected by it, others not. It is probably better to rather avoid this too.)

It is important to ensure that both your Doctor and the Pharmacist who dispenses your medication are aware that you are a drug addict in recovery. We need to take responsibility for our recovery and ensure that we keep them aware and attentive in this regard.

I was probably in my first year of recovery when I had a nasty cough. I went to the Pharmacy to get some over the counter (OTC) medicine for it. As the Pharmacist was typing on his computer while dispensing the medicine, we were talking about my recovery. He knows that I am an addict and alcoholic and we chatted about how long I have been clean, what I am addicted to and how I was experiencing this new way of life.

As soon as I got into my car, I took a dose of the medicine and drove off. Suddenly I felt as if male menopause struck me. I had a hectic hot flush. Being quite aware of what happens in my body, I immediately knew this was not normal and had a very strong suspicion of what it could be. I took the bottle out of my bag and read the label. Yip, there it was. The cough mixture contained alcohol. I was furious. At the next stop I jumped out of the car and discarded of the offensive medicine. I could not believe that the Pharmacist could be that irresponsible. I mean really, we talked about my recovery! How could he make such a mistake?

Once I calmed down, I looked at my part in the situation. When I asked for the cough medicine I did not remind him that I cannot take ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, codeine and alcohol. Once I received the medicine, I did not read the label. I blindly took it. I need to own that my recovery is not as important to the Pharmacist as it is to me. I suppose I cannot expect him to remember each clients’ individual requirements. His life does not revolve around me. I am just not that important. Although I can reasonably expect professional behaviour and utmost care from my Pharmacist, I need to accept that my recovery is my responsibility, not his.

Having moved to Somerset West, I needed a new General Practitioner. Upon my first visit I told him about my addiction and asked him to note down in my file that I cannot take ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, codeine and alcohol. He duly did so. Every time I visit him, when he writes out my prescription, I remind him that I cannot take medication containing the things as per the note in my file. We then normally discuss my recovery and my progress. Every time I get to the pharmacy I request the Pharmacist to check that the Doctor did not prescribe anything that I cannot take. Each and every time at least one prescribed item contains something I cannot take and then the Pharmacist and I need to negotiate our way around that. This made me feel really angry and very disappointed. I felt disrespected and not heard. I needed to take responsibility for my recovery, so I changed GP. We need to do what we need to do. We have to go to any lengths to get and maintain our sobriety.

As an addict, sponsor and Counsellor, I often talk to other addicts about being sick and how to handle that. I find that many addicts believe they cannot take any medication. The thing is, we can take medication, as long as it is safe for us to take them.

I now take medication as a last resort. Previously, I would have taken anything as soon as any form of pain or niggle started. I first try to sit with the discomfort to see where it is going. Once I am sure that I do have a pain and that it is getting worse, I normally do one of two things, or both. I make sure that I am properly hydrated by drinking enough water (something I normally do as rule anyway) and/or lie down to rest (if that is a practical option). If this does not work, then I take medicine.

The following are things I deem to be safe and use as and when needed:

I am a huge sinus sufferer. My whole family suffers from it. For sinus and related symptoms, I take Sinustat. (Both Sinustat and Sinuclear contain phenylpropanolamine - should probably rather be avoid). There are two on the market. One for sinus and one for flu. I am not sure why, but I stay well clear of the one for flu and even take the sinus one when I have flu. (Sinustat FLU contains Phenylephrine; NOT to be used). As Leata stated above, some people have a reaction to phenylpropanolamine. I am one of the lucky ones. It does not have any effect on me.

I use Iliadin (metered spray for adults) for a blocked nose. (Can also use a cortisone nasal spray - available OTC.)

For flu and colds, I am normally kind to me and get as much bed rest as possible.

For a standard headache or any other mild pain, I take Panado or Disprin. For more intense pains I take anti-inflammatories, containing Ibuprofen. At the moment there is a pack of Inza (same as Brufen; also other generics available) tablets in the medicine drawer. (Beware of taking anti-inflammatories or Aspirin if you are on blood-thinners, have a stomach ulcer or suffer from Asthma.)

For severe pain I take Mypaid. The active ingredients are Ibuprofen and Paracetamol.

When I feel nauseous I take Valoid and for diarrhoea I take Gastron (Imodium generic). Smecta is a good safe choice for diarrhoea.

For mouth ulcers, I use Pyralvex.

Leata provided me with this summary:

Sinus, cold or flu, with nasal congestion and or coughing

  • Rinse nose with saline douche. I felt uncomfortable doing this in the beginning of my recovery, as I was afraid it would remind me of doing lines. It does not!

  • Nasal spray - cortisone; like
    • Flonase or
    • Iliadin
  • Steam: in boiling water with a towel over the head; use
    • Karvol or
    • Olbas
  • Tablets
    • A mucolytic (they break up phlegm) can be used; like
      • Sinupret (natural mucolytic and anti-inflammatory),
      • ACC200 or
      • Amuco (generic). Also consider
      • Mocuspect or its generic.
    • Anti-histamine (can also help as colds are often caused by allergies.)
      • Allergex
      • Femox120
  • Liquid
    • Bisolvon or generics (opens up airways and breaks down phlegm) - Can make you feel shaky or give palpitations. Stop taking it if it has any of these effects on you.
    • Prospan is a very good natural cough mixture
  • Natural anti-inflammatories
    • Traumeel or
    • Arnica
  • Natural remedy for cold
    • Echinaforce or
    • Viral choice

    Try to avoid all OTC cold and flu meds. Corenza C, for instance, contains Phenylephrine (which is similar to ephedrine)

For pain and fever

  • Paracetamol
    • Panado or
    • Disprin (Aspirin)

    If severe - Paracetamol plus Ibuprofen

    • Mypaid


  • Valoid


  • Smecta

Please note that this list is by no means exhaustive. I am sure there may be other products that help with these ailments. I have focussed on what I struggle with and, in my experience, what others need help with.

Unlike in active addiction, I now take any medication purely as prescribed. If the packet says one tablet every 6 hours, that is how I take it and do not deviate from those instructions.

In recovery, I always used to think that being sick is one of the worst things ever. Because I do not feel well when sick (obviously) I feel vulnerable. This brings out my character defects as if they are on a ramp at a fashion show. They do not just present themselves, like at an identity parade, they fully strut their stuff. Acting out on these defects makes me feel ashamed and guilty, which just contributes to how awful I am feeling. I allowed being sick to make my life completely unmanageable and I hated life because of it. It fully consumed and defined me.

I now look at being sick as just a part of life. It IS not my life. I stand back and evaluate how things really are for me. Mostly, I can honestly say that, except for feeling awful, the rest of my life is perfectly in order. I now look at being sick as a small part of a much bigger picture and do not allow my life to become unmanageable just because I am sick.

There are always things to be grateful for.

I have asked my friend, Janine, to write a post about purely natural medicines that she would recommend for common ailments. I hope to post that at a later stage as a separate article.