The U.S. is seeing the sad and often deadly effects of opioids every day. It’s been declared a national epidemic and a public health crisis, but opioids continue to wreak havoc on the lives of people, communities and the nation as a whole.

Opioids, despite the damage they can cause, are often used for medical reasons, and the majority of the opioids that are abused and lead to overdoses in the U.S. are prescription pain relievers. It leaves people wondering what the medical uses are for these drugs.

One such opioid is codeine, and below is an overview of the uses for codeine.

What is Codeine?

Codeine is classified as an opioid. It is a controlled substance in the U.S., meaning it’s available only by prescription. This is because it does have the potential for abuse and addiction, as with other opioids.

While it is possible to abuse or become addicted to codeine, the risk of this is somewhat lower than with other opioids.

Codeine acts on the brain and body in the same ways as morphine, and when someone takes it, it actually converts back to morphine once it reaches their brain.

Codeine is prescribed to relieve pain ranging from mild to moderate, and it can also be used as a cough medicine because it affects the brain in the place where the cough reflex is located, suppressing this reflex. In rarer cases, codeine may be used to treat diarrhea and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

Codeine can be prescribed on its own, but it’s commonly used in combination medicines with things like acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen.

This is because when codeine is paired with these over-the-counter pain relievers it tends to be more effective than any of these substances is on their own.

Codeine is on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines unlike other opioids, which outlines the safest and most effective medicines needed in the health system.

Codeine is a naturally-occurring opiate, as compared to many other prescription narcotics which are synthesized, meaning they’re made in a laboratory.

Uses for Codeine

As was touched on above, the uses for codeine primarily include pain relief and cough suppression.

Codeine is believed to work as a pain reliever because once it travels to the central nervous system of the user, it converts to morphine and binds to the opioid receptors. When this occurs, the central nervous system changes the way the body senses pain. What codeine is ultimately doing is upping the pain threshold for the user. This then helps the person not necessarily have their pain eliminated, but they feel the pain in a lesser way. When codeine is used in combination with something like acetaminophen, it’s even more effective at combating pain in multiple ways.

Codeine is for mild to moderate pain, and it’s not effective in most cases for more severe pain.

It can also be used to treat gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea, because of how it affects the gastrointestinal system.

Unlike many other opioids, codeine isn’t a first-line treatment option for cancer pain usually, and it also tends to have increased side effects when used in this way.

Codeine is available as single-ingredient and combination drugs, and codeine-only products are available in time-release tablets. There are also cough syrups containing codeine with several other active ingredients included in the formulation.

While there are beneficial codeine uses, there are side effects and risks as well

Side Effects of Codeine

Along with therapeutic codeine uses, people should be aware of the side effects. Some of the common side effects of codeine can include rash, constipation and stomach pain, itching and shortness of breath. It can also cause nausea.

There are severe but rare side effects that may occur with codeine usage such as low blood pressure and breathing that slows to the point that it’s dangerous or deadly.

Like other opioids, codeine can cause respiratory depression, and if breathing slows too much, the person can overdose, go into a coma or die.

Dependence and addiction are also possible side effects of codeine, and this risk is higher the longer the person uses this medication.

Because of the risks and side effects of codeine, people should take this medication only as instructed and they shouldn’t mix it with things like other opioids, alcohol or benzodiazepines such as Xanax. This is because these substances all depress the activity of the central nervous system, and can increase the chances of an overdose occurring.

So, to sum up, what are the codeine uses that are approved with this narcotic?

Codeine uses include the treatment of pain ranging from mild to moderate. Codeine uses can also include the treatment of a cough, and in some cases, it may be used for gastrointestinal issues.

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.