Codeine is a narcotic, which is an outdated blanket term for opioids. Like other narcotics, codeine carries a risk for abuse, dependence and addiction.

Is codeine a narcotic? Yes, but narcotic is an outdated term for opioids. Opioids include a large group of medications used to treat pain, and they either occur naturally in poppy plants or are synthesized in a lab. Codeine is an example of a naturally occurring opioid, meaning it is also an opiate.

What Is Codeine?

Codeine is a prescription opioid pain reliever and cough suppressant that’s considered relatively mild among other opioids. It can be used to treat mild to moderate pain, and it’s often used in combination medicines with other things like acetaminophen to improve effectiveness.

Codeine is an opiate, although this term is frequently used interchangeably with the term opioid. An opiate is derived naturally from the poppy plant, while an opioid is synthetically made. Regardless, in most scenarios, you will hear the terms opiate and opioid used in the same ways.

Codeine does have possible side effects, including:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Sweating
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Light-headedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sedation

Two other risks of codeine are addiction and physical dependence, so doctors have to be careful when prescribing drugs like this. People who use opioids should follow their doctor’s instructions when taking them.

What Are Narcotics?

The term narcotic refers to prescription painkillers (opiates or opioids). Narcotics work by binding to pain receptors in the central nervous system and blocking signals. This helps treat pain in people who don’t show a response to other types of pain relievers.

“Narcotic” is a term that can refer to both legal prescription drugs and illegal drugs. Narcotics are a type of drug with the potential to be addictive. Not every drug can fall into this category. For example, Tylenol isn’t considered a narcotic.

When a drug has addiction potential, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) labels it a controlled substance. It can only legally be used under the direction of a prescriber.

Drug abuse can come in different forms. It includes using a controlled substance without a prescription or for a nonmedical reason. This definition includes the misuse of a controlled substance that was prescribed to you for a legitimate purpose. For example, if you are prescribed codeine to use up to one tablet daily for pain, and use two tablets or more per day because it feels good, this is considered prescription drug abuse.

Some of the legal prescription narcotics include fentanyl, hydrocodonemethadonemorphine and tramadol. An example of an illegal narcotic is heroin.

Side effects of narcotics, whether they’re prescription pain relievers or illegal narcotics like heroin, include:

  • Constipation
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Nausea
  • Shallow breathing
  • Sleepiness
  • Slowed breathing

Narcotics also have psychoactive properties, so when someone takes them, they may feel euphoria or a pleasant sense of well-being. As that wears off, the person will likely feel drowsy and relaxed. This is why narcotics are addictive. People who take them experience a pleasant feeling, triggering certain reward responses in their brain that give rise to addiction.

When people take narcotics, their body quickly becomes used to them. This leads to a higher tolerance, meaning larger doses are needed to get the same effects. Eventually, the person’s body adjusts to the presence of the drugs. To stop taking them suddenly would lead to symptoms of withdrawal. This is called physical dependence.

Other risks of narcotics are overdose and death. As narcotics bind to opioid receptors in the central nervous system, they slow down essential functions, including respiration. If someone takes too large a dose of a narcotic, even when it’s prescribed, they may stop breathing altogether.

Codeine Is a Narcotic

Yes, codeine is classified as a narcotic. It is a controlled substance, although it tends to be less potent than most other narcotic opioids. That said, codeine is still addictive. You can still become physically dependent on it, and it can still cause overdose and adverse effects.

When you’re prescribed to take a narcotic like codeine, it’s important not just to follow your doctor’s instructions but to let them know how your pain responds to the drug you’re prescribed and if you experience any side effects.

It’s also important to let your doctor know about any other substances you might regularly use before taking narcotics. This can include alcohol, other prescriptions, vitamins, and herbal substances.  Narcotics can interact negatively with certain substances. Being completely honest with your doctor can help prevent severe side effects or death resulting from these possible interactions.

If you or a loved one are misusing or abusing codeine or another narcotic, The Recovery Village can help you stop. Our licensed addiction specialists can offer evidence-based, compassionate care that can start you on the path to a narcotic-free life. Contact us today to discuss treatment options that can work for your situation.

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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 – Dr. Conor Sheehy, PharmD, BCPS, CACP
Dr. Sheehy completed his BS in Molecular Biology at the University of Idaho and went on to complete his Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) at the University of Washington in Seattle. Read more

American Academy of Family Physicians. “Opioid Conversion Table.” Accessed September 13, 2021.

American Society of Anesthesiologists. “What Are Opioids.” 2021. Accessed September 13, 2021.

U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Opiate and Opioid Withdrawal.” MedlinePlus, August 2021. Accessed September 13, 2021.

National Cancer Institute. “Narcotic.” Accessed September 13, 2021.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Misuse of Prescription Drugs Research Report.” June 2020. Accessed September 13, 2021.

Nielson, Suzanne, et al. “Identifying and Treating Codeine Depe[…]ystematic Review.” Medical Journal of Australia, June 4, 2018. Accessed September 13, 2021.

PharmPak. “Acetaminophen With Codeine Package Insert.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, January 2015. Accessed September 13, 2021.

West-Ward Pharmaceuticals. “Codeine Sulfate Package Insert.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, October 2019. Accessed September 13, 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.