The rate of prescription drug abuse and death as a result of overdose is continually on the rise in the U.S. In fact, over the last decade, prescription drugs, particularly opioid analgesics, have increasingly played a part in overdose deaths contributing to nearly 60% of drug-related deaths per year. Even more shocking, many of these drugs may seem non-threatening at first glance, however, can end up spiraling someone into addiction if not properly taken.

One drug that has been receiving increasing attention for potential abuse is codeine. Because this drug is oftentimes used in cough suppressants it may be overlooked as a threat for addiction. However, when understanding what codeine is and how it can play a role in addiction one can clearly see how this “innocent-looking” drug can run havoc on one’s life if inappropriately taken.

What is Codeine?

Codeine is a prescription drug typically prescribed by a doctor to relieve mild to moderate pain. It is also commonly prescribed in conjunction with other medications in order to help reduce coughing or relieve occasional gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea. As such, it is the main ingredient in many prescription-grade cough suppressants and Tylenol 3, a popular pain reliever. Although codeine can help relieve symptoms it will not treat the cause of symptoms or help to speed up the recovery of symptoms experienced. Furthermore, while this prescription drug may start off blameless enough as a means to relieve pain or a cough, it is considered an opiate and, as such, runs a high risk of tolerance and dependence on its users. This is particularly true if someone takes much larger doses than recommended. 

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Derived from a member of the opium poppy plant, codeine is an opiate under the same category of drugs like oxycodone, heroin, and morphine. Like other opiates, codeine works by activating the reward system in the brain, causing “pleasure” hormones to be released in excessive amounts. The excessive amount of pleasure experienced by the user then creates a craving for more of the drug in order to feel the desired effects frequently. As such, an addiction can take a hold of the user’s life. 

Although many people who take codeine do not develop an addiction to it, some individuals abuse codeine to reach a desired, euphoric effect on their body. Because of this, codeine and other opiates are becoming more highly abused and, thus, more destructive on a user’s life than ever before.

What is the Risk of Abusing Codeine?

Many times, when an individual abuses codeine, the likelihood of tolerance to the drug increases, which causes them to seek out heavier and stronger narcotics in order to achieve the desired “high”. Furthermore, many people suffering from a codeine addiction begin to take codeine with other drugs like benzodiazepines and alcohol to amplify the effects of the prescription drug. 

Like any addiction, codeine can cause devastating effects on the user’s health and interpersonal life. The symptoms of codeine abuse can vary depending on a variety of factors including the genetic makeup of the individual, the length of time the person has been abusing codeine, the dosage of the drug taken, if codeine was taken with other substances, and the frequency of usage. However, some of the most common symptoms experienced from codeine abuse are:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Euphoria
  • Sense of well-being and calmness
  • Mood swings
  • Dizziness
  • Blue tinges on lips and fingernail beds
  • Fainting
  • Dry mouth
  • Low blood pressure
  • Constipation
  • Itching
  • Rashes
  • Respiratory depression
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Urinary retention
  • Seizures
  • Psychosis
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Decrease in mental health
  • Decreased memory
  • Apathy, like of emotions, numbing

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Long-term effects of codeine abuse may include:

  • Liver damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Acute pancreatitis
  • Severe depression
  • Cold and clammy skin
  • Muscle twitches, cramps, spasms, pain
  • Increased sensitivity to pain
  • Decrease in muscle tone
  • Respiratory depression
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death

In order to decide if addiction is at hand, it is important to understand the behavioral symptoms of addiction. These may include:

  • Withdrawing from friends and family/social isolation
  • Doctor shopping (visiting numerous doctors in order to get larger amounts of codeine than prescribed by your primary care physician)
  • Stealing drugs from friends or family
  • Frequent visits to the ER complaining of pain in order to get more drugs
  • Legal problems
  • Financial problems
  • Obsession about obtaining codeine
  • Indifference to activities you once used to enjoy
  • Ordering codeine online
  • Faking illness as a means to get more codeine
  • “Nodding off” 
  • Sleepiness 
  • Lying about usage

What is the Risk of Codeine Withdrawal?

Just as codeine can affect each individual differently so, too, can the withdrawal symptoms experienced vary depending on the individual. That being said, it is imperative that if you are considering detoxing off codeine or any other opiate that you do so under the care of a medical professional, as withdrawal symptoms can be intense. While withdrawal symptoms may vary depending on the individual, some common withdrawal symptoms experienced may include:

  • Insomnia
  • Psychosis
  • Intense drug cravings
  • Muscle spasms
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Hallucinations
  • Racing thoughts
  • Delusions

As this list is not all-inclusive, it is vital that you reach out to a medical professional if you feel any abnormal or uncomfortable symptoms when withdrawing off codeine.

What Is the Next Step You Should Take if You are Addicted to Codeine?

You should never try to detox off codeine by yourself, as there is always a risk of inappropriately tapering dosage and having intense withdrawal symptoms. Furthermore, because many people who find themselves addicted to codeine also have another underlying medical condition it is essential that you seek help through a trained professional who can safely detox you off codeine and treat any other underlying medical conditions you may have. Some common co-occurring disorders that often overlap a codeine addiction include:

  • Alcoholism
  • Substance abuse
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Schizophrenia

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In order to best treat these disorders and your addiction to codeine it is, therefore, vital that you find appropriate help either through a trained medical professional who understands addiction or attend an intensive outpatient/inpatient drug rehab facility that specializes in dual diagnosis treatment. Even if you don’t feel you need dual diagnosis treatment for a co-occurring disorder, seeking help through a drug rehab facility will prove to be your best option for kicking an addiction to codeine to the curb and never returning back to it in the future.

If you or a loved one is suffering from an addiction to codeine, the time to get help is now. Break free from the chains of addiction today and be on a path to a better tomorrow right now. 

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