Paul Denys was 24 when he suffered a "bit of pain" from a football shoulder injury that led a friend to suggest he try Nurofen Plus.

The former prison officer bought a packet over the counter which "gave him a bit of a buzz". It also kickstarted a 21-year addiction where he consumed up to 90 tablets a day and almost cost him his life.

"It gave me a buzz but the other side, living a normal life, just wasn't there," he told news.com.au. "I was getting in trouble at work. I was a good officer and my performance dropped. Being intimate with my partner was no more. My whole health deteriorated, I put on so much weight. I was living half a life. The drug just took over. I was going to four chemists a day. It just had a hold of me."

On Christmas Eve 2015 he woke with a searing pain in his stomach and was rushed to hospital for a 10-hour emergency surgery following a "burning ulcer". Still "too embarrassed to look the nurse in the eye", it fell to Paul's fiancee to reveal the extent of his habit.

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Now 45, following two more operations and a stint in a mental health hospital, Paul is no longer ashamed to speak about his ordeal.

"I suffered depression, my fiancee left, I was living in my car for about three weeks … I just didn't want to be around anymore."

He said anyone who finds themselves in such a situation should find someone they trust to speak to.

Paul Denys now has a major scar and said anyone who finds themselves in such a situation should speak to someone they trust for help. Photo / News.com.au
Paul Denys now has a major scar and said anyone who finds themselves in such a situation should speak to someone they trust for help. Photo / News.com.au

"That person can help you. I felt embarrassed but now I wouldn't be embarrassed. Being embarrassed nearly cost me my life. It's just like any other drug, heroin, cocaine or ice — it's got to take something that will nearly cost your life to wake up."

ScriptWise CEO Norhawa Bee Mohamed Ismail, who runs the charity founded by Heath Ledger's father Kim after his son died of an overdose in 2008, said prescription drug addiction is becoming a "public health crisis" which is "still under the radar".

"People don't see they have an issue. Especially for depression and chronic pain, they actually say they can only function on these medications but they don't realise that that's also a sign of dependency. When you've taken it for eight or nine years, you're not actually managing the issue."

It comes amid a widespread opioid crisis in the US that killed more than 40,000 people in 2016. Many deaths have been blamed on a street version of prescription opiate fentanyl, causing anxiety among health professionals in Australia and the UK.

"Dramatic" increase in Kiwis abusing prescription meds

Abuse of prescription drugs is "creeping up in quite a dramatic way", Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne has warned.

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Dunne made his comments at a Drug Foundation-organised symposium held at Parliament, attended by researchers and workers on the frontline of drug and alcohol treatment services.

"In New Zealand we have always taken the view that some of these drugs cause so much harm that they should be illegal," Bill English said, adding that cannabis was one of those drugs.

Most debate at the symposium centred on illegal drugs - something that was challenged by a representative of the NZ Nurses Organisation, who said members were reporting the abuse of prescription drugs by the middle class was an "enormous" problem, but one that was barely mentioned in the national drug policy.

Dunne acknowledged the size of the problem.

"I think the area of prescription drugs is one that is, frankly, is creeping up on us in quite a dramatic way," Dunne said in response. "I think it is a real issue and I think it is something that comes into the ongoing development of the policy work in this area."