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The rate of prescription drug abuse and death as a result of overdose is continually on the rise in the U.S. Over the last decade, prescription drugs, particularly opioid analgesics, have increasingly played a part in overdose deaths. The data shows that the number of overdose deaths from opioids rose from 56,064 to 75,673 in the 12-month period ending in April 2021. Even more shocking, many of these drugs may seem non-threatening at first glance. However, it 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 often used in cough suppressants, it may be overlooked as a threat to addiction. However, when understanding what codeine is and how it can play a role in addiction, one can 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 with other medications to help reduce coughing or relieve occasional gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea. It is the main ingredient in many prescription-grade cough suppressants and in the pain reliever Tylenol-Codeine 3.

Although codeine can help relieve symptoms, it will not treat the cause or help speed up the recovery of symptoms experienced. Furthermore, while this prescription drug may start blameless enough 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 as 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 to feel the desired effects frequently. As a result, addiction can take 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 bodies. Because of this, codeine and other opiates are becoming more highly abused and, thus, more destructive to a user’s life than ever before. 

What is the Risk of Abusing Codeine?

When an individual abuses codeine, the likelihood of tolerance to the drug increases, which causes them to seek out heavier and stronger narcotics to achieve the desired “high.” Furthermore, many people suffering from 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 individual’s genetic makeup, the length of time the person has been abusing codeine, the dosage of the drug taken, and 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

To decide if addiction is at hand, it is important to understand the behavioral symptoms of addiction.

These symptoms may include:

  • Withdrawing from friends and family/social isolation
  • Doctor shopping (visiting numerous doctors 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 to get more drugs
  • Legal problems
  • Financial problems
  • Obsession with 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 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, you do so under the care of a medical professional, as withdrawal symptoms can be intense.

Some common codeine withdrawal symptoms may include:

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

Withdrawal symptoms may vary depending on the individual. As this list is not all-inclusive, you must reach out to a medical professional if you feel abnormal or uncomfortable symptoms when withdrawing from 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, you must seek help from a trained professional who can safely detox you off codeine and treat any other underlying medical conditions you may have.

Some disorders that may co-occur with a codeine addiction include:

  • Alcoholism
  • Substance abuse
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Schizophrenia
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To best treat these disorders and your addiction to codeine, it is, therefore, vital that you find appropriate help through a trained medical professional who understands addiction or attend an intensive outpatient/inpatient drug rehab facility specializing 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 be your best option for kicking an addiction to codeine to the curb and never returning 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. Contact us for more information so you can break free from the chains of addiction today and start down the path to a better tomorrow. 

Sources:

Infinite Recovery has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations for our references. We avoid using tertiary references as our sources. You can learn more about how we source our references by reading our editorial guidelines and medical review policy.

1. CDC, National Center for Health Statistics. Drug Overdose Deaths in the U.S. Top 100,000 Annually. Published November 17, 2021. Accessed June 25, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/nchs_press_releases/2021/20211117.htm

2. MedlinePlus. Codeine: MedlinePlus Drug Information. Published December 15, 2020. Accessed June 25, 2022. https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a682065.html

3. Hill PM, Strain EC. What Are Opioids? Accessed June 25, 2022. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/opioids/what-are-opioids.html

Amanda Stevens, BS

Medical Content Writer

Amanda Stevens, BS

Amanda is a prolific medical content writer specializing in eating disorders and addiction treatment. She graduated Magnum Cum Laude from Purdue University with a B.S. in Social Work. As a person in recovery from disordered eating, she is passionate about seeing people heal and transform. She writes for popular treatment centers such as Ocean Recovery, Ascendant NY, The Heights Treatment, Epiphany Wellness, New Waters Recovery and adolescent mental health treatment center BasePoint Academy. In her spare time she loves learning about health, nutrition, meditation, spiritual practices, and enjoys being the a mother of a beautiful daughter.

Last medically reviewed June 25, 2022

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