Side Effects of Codeine

Codeine is a medication available by prescription, which is used to treat pain and also a cough. It’s classified as a narcotic pain reliever or an opioid, and it’s similar to drugs like hydrocodone and morphine.

While codeine is pretty commonly prescribed, it does have risks and side effects, and as part of the opioid drug class, it’s also part of the opioid epidemic in the U.S.

Codeine is one of the less potent opioids, and it has a lower potential for abuse and addiction as compared to other opioids, but those risks are still very present with this drug.

When someone takes codeine, a portion of it converts to morphine when it reaches their brain. Then, once this happens, it binds to opioid receptors found throughout the central nervous system. As the drug binds to these receptors, it activates certain actions in the brain, and at higher doses, it can create a flood of feel-good brain neurotransmitters, which is why some people feel high from codeine and other opioids.

Because of its mechanisms of action, codeine also changes how the user feels and senses pain. It ultimately increases their pain tolerance, so they may still feel the pain, but it feels reduced. Because some level of pain may still exist with codeine, it’s often used in combination medicines, such as with acetaminophen. The acetaminophen further improves the ability of the codeine to combat pain.

Codeine also slows the activity of the central nervous system when it binds to opioid receptors, and it can be prescribed as a cough suppressant too.

Codeine is a controlled substance in the U.S. meaning it can only be taken with a prescription, and doing so in any way other than what’s prescribed by a doctor is considered abuse and illegal.

Because of the fact that codeine is one of the less potent opioids, people can tend to get lulled into a false sense of comfort about its use, but there are side effects of codeine and also risks of using this particular opioid that should be known.

First, some of the common side effects of codeine can include nausea, vomiting, constipation, and drowsiness.

Less common but very severe side effects of codeine include shallow breathing, low blood pressure, and extreme drowsiness. Other severe side effects of codeine can include seizures, urination problems, confusion, agitation, and hallucinations.

Over time there are other side effects of codeine possible as well. Two of these include addiction and dependence.

All opioids including codeine are considered to have a high risk for abuse and addiction. This is because codeine and other opioids can cause users to feel high, and then that triggers a cycle of reward that causes drug addiction.

Also possible is something called physical dependence. This occurs when someone’s brain and body become used to the presence of opioids. Then, if they stop taking them suddenly, they will experience withdrawal symptoms, as their body goes into a type of shock from no longer having the presence of the opioids.

Dependence to codeine and other opioids can occur even when someone takes them exactly as prescribed, and as a result, physicians will often advise patients to follow a tapering down schedule as they stop using codeine, to avoid withdrawal.

If codeine is combined with something else, such as acetaminophen, there are additional side effects possible. This is because acetaminophen can affect the liver, and can even cause liver damage and acute liver failure if large amounts are used.

Codeine should never be combined with alcohol because it can cause further respiratory depression which can cause an overdose. Also, if you mix a combination of codeine and acetaminophen with alcohol, it can increase the risk of liver problems.

If codeine is taken with other sedatives such as benzodiazepines like Xanax, it can cause confusion and more sedative effects, which can be dangerous or deadly.

You should always let your physician know about any other substances you use before taking any medicine that contains codeine.

Codeine does have therapeutic effects as a pain reliever and a cough suppressant, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t also have risks.

Is codeine bad for you?

In the short-term, if you use it exactly as directed by your doctor, codeine is considered somewhat safe, but not entirely risk-free. However, if you abuse it, codeine can be bad for you. You can overdose on codeine because of extreme respiratory depression, you can become addicted, and it can cause side effects like severe constipation.

The best thing to do is make sure you have a complete conversation with your physician about the side effects of codeine before taking it.

As was touched on above, some of the common side effects of codeine include drowsiness and constipation, but serious side effects are possible as well including vomiting, dysphoria, seizure, and respiratory depression. Your doctor can discuss codeine with you, and make a determination as to whether or not it’s a safe pain medicine or cough suppressant for you.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a 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 provider.

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