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Champix scarier than Iraq

Taking anti-smoking pills was far scarier than dodging bullets and bombs in Iraq

Posted on June 7, 2011in News & Views

Ross Appleyard ditches Champix after suffering dreadful side effects

I stood in the middle of the supermarket aisle, my heart beating wildly. I was looking for a packet of razor blades, but as my eyes frantically scanned the shelves all I could see were blurred images.

‘Calm down,’ I kept telling myself. ‘What is wrong with you?’

I thought I was going to faint, and had to race out of the store in front of other astonished shoppers. Only when I was sitting in my car did my breathing slow down, and my heart stop pumping in my chest. I realised I was experiencing a panic attack – something I had never encountered before.

After all, I had faced bullets and bombs in my career as a war correspondent for 12 years with Sky News, in conflict zones such as Kosovo, Iraq and Sierra Leone. I could always keep a cool head, and thrived on the adrenaline rush.

Yet now I had all but collapsed trying to buy a packet of razor blades.

For the past six weeks I had been taking the anti-smoking drug Champix and I was experiencing an escalating series of side effects that were making me extremely alarmed. I was prescribed the medicine – one pill per day, usually for 12 weeks – at my GP’s surgery.

At the age of 50 and having smoked since the age of 17, I was desperate to kick my 40-a-day cigarette habit.

The drug stopped me smoking but the pills triggered violent nightmares, hallucinations and mood swings.

Champix is now one of the most popular anti-smoking drugs in the UK

During the day, I started having hot flushes, suffered extreme feelings of lethargy and had the curious sensation that an unseen hand was gripping my throat and pressing on my chest.

I began suffering night sweats and subsequent exhaustion. I couldn’t concentrate – it was as if I was losing my short-term memory.

I’ve always been a positive, happy person but I was also feeling depressed and morbid.

My wife, Diana, 49, a writer, and daughters Beth, 23, and Charlotte, 17, were very concerned – I couldn’t sit still and I’d also started making odd involuntary noises.

At first I believed I was suffering symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. But most studies suggest the anxiety, headaches, irritability and fatigue that can arise from stopping smoking cease after about two weeks.

Nicotine leaves the brain after around 40 minutes, and residual amounts stay in the body for up to 14 days. But after a month, I felt something was wrong.

When first launched in the UK in 2006, Champix was hailed as a wonder drug to wean long-term smokers off their nicotine habit, successful in at least half of all cases.

The active ingredient, varenicline, works by interfering with the receptors in the brain that nicotine stimulates. This mimics the pleasurable effect that nicotine has on the brain, which reduces cravings and withdrawal effects when you stop smoking.

Distributed by the drug giant Pfizer, Champix is now one of the most popular anti-smoking drugs, currently taken by about 200,000 people in the UK.

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