Codeine is less powerful than other opiate or opioid drugs. However, it should still be used with caution because it carries the risk of abuse and addiction.

Codeine is a prescription opiate drug used to treat mild to moderate pain and cough. In the body, this pain reliever converts to morphine and binds to opioid receptors. This changes the way a person experiences pain sensations; however, most people who take codeine are still able to feel some level of pain. To boost its effectiveness as a pain reliever, codeine is often combined with other drugs, such as acetaminophen.

Some of the side effects of codeine can include:

  • Itchiness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sedation
  • Constipation

Codeine carries the risk of addiction and physical dependence, which is why it’s intended as a short-term treatment.

Although codeine is an opiate, it is less powerful than many other kinds of opiate and opioid drugs. The following provides an overview of the differences between opiates and opioids, how these drugs work and how codeine compares to other opiates in terms of potency.

What Are Opiates?

The terms opiate and opioid are used interchangeably in most contexts, but they do have differences when compared to one another. Strictly speaking, opiate refers to a substance that’s directly derived from opium — a substance found in the poppy plant. Codeine and morphine are both derived from opium, making them opiate drugs. Opiates may also be called natural opioids. Opiates like codeine are controlled substances that carry the risk of abuse, dependence and addiction.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids work in many of the same ways as opiates, but they aren’t naturally occurring. Instead, they are semi-synthetic or synthetic, meaning they are manufactured using chemical processes. Semi-synthetic opioids are a combination of opiates, such as codeine or morphine, that have gone through chemical changes. Synthetic opioids, however, are made entirely through chemical processes.

Drugs like oxycodonehydrocodone and heroin are classified as semi-synthetic opioids, while drugs like methadoneand fentanyl are synthetic opioids.

What Do Opiates and Opioids Do?

Both opiates and opioids are narcotic drugs that act on opioid receptors in the central nervous system. When this happens, they change how sensations of pain are experienced. However, they can also lead to drowsiness and overall depression of the central nervous system (CNS). The risk of CNS depression is one of the key reasons why opioids and opiates can be dangerous, particularly in high doses. Essentially, when someone abuses these drugs, they can slow their breathing to the point that they nod off, lose consciousness or die.

Both opiates and opioids can lead to physical dependence. This means that a person’s body feels like it must have the drug in order to function normally. If someone is physically dependent on opiates or opioids and suddenly stops taking them, they will go through withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Diarrhea

Is Codeine Less Dangerous Than Other Opiates and Opioids?

Codeine is considered milder than other drugs within the opiate or opioid drug category. However, it should still be used with caution because it carries the risk of abuse, dependence, addiction and overdose.

If you or someone you love is struggling to stop using opiate or opioid drugs like codeine, The Recovery Village can help. Contact us today to learn more about opioid addiction treatment programs that can work well for your needs.

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Editor – Jonathan Strum
Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor's in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD
Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Read more
Sources “Codeine.” October 30, 2020. Accessed September 7, 2021. “Promethazine and Codeine.” July 15, 2020. Accessed September 7, 2021.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Commonly Used Terms.” January 26, 2021. Accessed September 7, 2021.

Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration. “Controlled Substances.” August 27, 2021. Accessed September 7, 2021.

Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration. “Narcotics.” April 2020. Accessed September 7, 2021.

American Academy of Family Physicians. “Opioid Conversion Table.” Accessed September 7, 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.