Codeine can be helpful if used as prescribed, but misusing codeine can lead to kidney damage, dependence, addiction and a potentially deadly overdose.

Article at a Glance:

  • Codeine is a medication that is generally safe when taken as prescribed for cough or pain over short periods of time.
  • Codeine can be harmful or even deadly when misused.
  • Codeine overdoses are medical emergencies that result in the suppression of breathing.
  • While codeine is not normally harmful to your kidneys and liver by itself, it is often combined with other drugs that may be.

What Is Codeine?

Codeine is a prescription drug that can be taken on its own to treat pain, and it can be used in combination with other medicines to increase its effectiveness. Codeine is also prescribed to treat coughing and, in some cases, diarrhea and irritable bowel.

Codeine is a controlled substance only available with a doctor’s prescription because it can cause abuse, dependence and addiction. Codeine binds to opioid receptors found in the nervous system to create its effects. It also releases chemicals associated with pleasure called endorphins, and the pleasurable feeling they create can lead someone to misuse codeine, eventually becoming addicted.

Short-Term Effects of Codeine

Codeine can have many immediate short-term effects. Some of the short-term effects of codeine will vary based on the individual.

The short-term effects of codeine may include:

  • Decreased pain
  • Cough suppression
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Facial flushing
  • Drowsiness
  • Euphoria
  • Suppressed breathing

If you or someone you are with has slow or absent breathing or is difficult to wake up after using codeine, they may be accidentally overdosing. If this occurs, you should immediately call emergency services using 911 and prepare to administer first aid while waiting for help to arrive.

Long-Term Effects of Codeine

Like other opioids, addiction and dependence are two of the more serious and detrimental long-term side effects of codeine. The risk of addiction, however, is lower when codeine is compared to other prescription opioids.

Other serious side effects possible with codeine include adrenal problems and overdose. An overdose of codeine or any other opioid occurs when someone takes a larger dose than prescribed or a dose large enough to cause harmful effects. A codeine overdose may slow down respiration to a dangerous level or stop breathing altogether. People who misuse codeine may experience a euphoric high but may also experience overdose symptoms that could potentially be fatal.

Is Codeine Bad For You?

Codeine is a medication and can be helpful if used as prescribed and only for a short period of time. It can be an effective pain management medication and can help suppress coughing. However, codeine can be bad for you if you misuse it, take it in ways other than what’s prescribed, or use it for prolonged periods of time. Never take someone else’s codeine or in a way that isn’t prescribed by your doctor.

See More: Codeine Side Effects

Is Codeine Bad For Your Liver?

Codeine on its own isn’t bad for your liver, but when it’s used in combination with other medications, it can be. One example is combination drugs that include both codeine and acetaminophen.

Acetaminophen is one of the most commonly used medications in the world, and it’s available over-the-counter in medications like Tylenol. It’s considered safe at recommended doses, but if you take it in excess, it can cause serious health problems. The liver processes acetaminophen, and if you take too much, it can cause liver damage.

Acetaminophen in large amounts has been linked to acute liver failure and death. This is why it’s so important for people taking codeine-acetaminophen combination drugs to follow dosage instructions. The risk of liver problems from acetaminophen is even higher if you use other substances that are possibly dangerous to the liver at the same time, such as alcohol.

Codeine is not bad for your liver on its own, but acetaminophen is, so be aware of this with combination medications.

Is Codeine Bad For Your Kidneys?

Certain medications can change kidney function and can be toxic to the kidneys, ultimately leading to renal failure in serious cases. One example of this is combination medications that include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These include ibuprofen and aspirin.

They may be included in combination drugs that include codeine. In this case, it’s important to take only the prescribed dose to avoid potential damage to the kidneys.

If you’re struggling with codeine misuse or can’t seem to stop using codeine, help is available. Addiction experts at The Recovery Village can provide comprehensive, evidence-based treatment that helps you start a healthier, opioid-free life. Contact us today to discuss treatment options that can suit your needs. 

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Editor – Melissa Carmona
Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN
Benjamin Caleb Williams is a board-certified Emergency Nurse with several years of clinical experience, including supervisory roles within the ICU and ER settings. Read more
Sources “Codeine.” October 30, 2020. Accessed July 28, 2021.

Drug Enforcement Administration. “Controlled Substances.” June 26, 2021. Accessed July 2, 2021.

American Academy of Family Physicians. “Opioid Conversion Table.” Accessed July 2, 2021.

O’Malley, Gerald F. & O’Malley, Rika. “Opioid Toxicity and Withdrawal.” Merck Manuals, May 2020. Accessed July 28, 2021.

Choosing Wisely. “Painkiller Choices with Kidney or Heart Problems.” ABIM Foundation, October 2012. Accessed July 28, 2021.

American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. “Acetaminophen.” National Institutes of Health, April 15, 2017. Accessed July 28, 2021.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.