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Codeine Addiction

Table of Contents

In the late 1990s, the pharmaceutical community did their best to reassure the medical community that patients prescribed opioids to would not become addicted. It was this time that physicians began prescribing opioids at greater rates, and it was this time frame where the crisis began to worsen slowly. This, in turn, led to misuse of both prescription and non-prescription opioids. It was not until a later time until there was clarity about how addictive these medications could actually be.

Some of the most devastating effects of opioids are related to overdoses. Another issue that has become prominent recently in headlines are babies being born to addicted mothers. This condition is called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), and it is defined as a set of challenges a newborn infant will experience as they withdraw from addictive opiate/opioids they were exposed to while in the womb. The opioid crisis has grown so fiercely that cities like Boston have seen the number of babies being born to addicted mother’s quadruple during the past 16 years.

In 2016 alone, opioid overdoses accounted for 42,000 deaths. While codeine is considered a relatively harmless opioid and is much weaker than morphine, it is still not safe to misuse. The drug can be dangerous especially when used in combination with alcohol. Codeine also has been considered by some to be a gateway to stronger opioids. Although this may not be the case for everyone, codeine addiction can have serious health consequences that include permanent organ damage, memory loss, muscle problems, and even death.

What Is Codeine?

Doctors prescribe codeine to treat moderate pain. It is also commonly used as a cough suppressant. It comes from a class of drugs that shares its name with other popular drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin. Codeine is also widely used in combination with aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen to enhance its pain-relieving properties.

Codeine is one of the most commonly consumed opioids, and depending on how the drug is prepared, the DEA classifies it as either a Schedule II, III or V substance. The difference in these schedules translates to how dangerous and addictive the different versions are.

One problem that surrounds codeine that was mentioned previously is that it is on the weaker end of the spectrum. What makes that a problem is individuals who consume the drug require high amounts of codeine to experience euphoria. This, in turn, will create a tolerance a lot faster. This can lead the person to seek out stronger opioids to fulfill the high they desire.

How Does Codeine Work?

Codeine has a similar effect on the body that all opioids do in that they bind to the brain’s opioid receptors. When they bind to the receptors, they stimulate production that leads to the euphoria associated with the drug’s use.

Opioid receptors are neurotransmitters that regulate stress and how the body responds to pain. These brain chemicals also monitor how pain signals are transmitted throughout the central nervous system to the brain. Codeine works by binding to the receptors and providing a huge boost in activity to the following areas:

  • Brainstem: Codeine blocks the brainstem for receiving pain signals and slowing down breathing. This is what can cause feelings of sedation and relaxation. Another benefit of this is that is can suppress coughing.
  • Spinal Cord: This is the first stop for pain signals in the body before being passed onto the brain. Codeine acts as a buffer around the spinal cord so that it does not receive or send pain signals.
  • Limbic System: This is considered the pleasure center of the brain, and the limbic system is where the drug itself stimulates dopamine. This increase of dopamine levels is what creates the feelings of euphoria that often are attributed to opioid stimulation.

On average, codeine takes around 10 minutes to 30 minutes to take effect, depending on the dosage and method of administration. The effects can last around four to six hours. Because codeine is a weaker opioid, people who abuse codeine can build a tolerance in a short time, which means they could move on to stronger opioids that satisfy the high they are seeking. When a tolerance builds up to codeine or other opioids, there is a high probability heroin can be sought out. Heroin is a stronger and less expensive alternative to prescription opioids, and this is the path codeine addiction can lead to.

What Are the Effects of Codeine?

Codeine has a reputation as a weaker opioid, but that does not negate the serious consequences that can result from use of the drug. Common short-term effects of codeine on the brain’s opioid receptors and dopamine levels include:

  • Pain relief
  • Euphoria
  • Intoxication
  • Nausea
  • Drowsiness
  • Rashes
  • Constipation
  • Hallucinations
  • Dizziness
  • Tremors
  • Difficulty urinating

Users who take high doses of codeine may experience:

  • Dangerously shallow breathing
  • Low heart rate
  • Low blood pressure

These effects can have some dire consequences, and the user could potentially suffer a loss of consciousness. They could also experience respiratory problems and cardiac arrest. A lack of oxygen in the bloodstream can lead to permanent organ damage.

Some long-term effects attributed to chronic codeine abuse are:

  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver damage
  • Muscle coordination problems
  • Memory problems
  • Respiratory depression
  • Seizures

What Are the Signs of Codeine Addiction?

Those in the early stages of a drug addiction are harder to spot. This happens in part because the addiction hasn’t consumed their entire lives. To ensure that it doesn’t get to this point, one must become aware of the signs of codeine addiction. Knowing these signs can be the difference between life and death.

The deeper someone gets into their addiction will indicate more outward signs. There will be a noticeable change in behaviors that you will be able to recognize in either yourself or a loved one when the addiction to codeine becomes more prominent. Some of the signs of codeine addiction to look out for can include:

  • Higher tolerance levels for codeine
  • Difficulty performing daily without codeine
  • Declining work or academic performance
  • Inability to stop using codeine despite many previous attempts
  • Justifying codeine use
  • Using more codeine than prescribed
  • Missing valuables or money to obtain codeine
  • Continued use despite negative consequences
  • Lying to hide codeine use
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not taking codeine
  • Lack of interest in hobbies
  • Neglect of one’s hygiene and appearance

If any of these symptoms sound familiar to either you or someone you love, start medical detoxification now to jump-start the process of getting sober. Starting treatment as quickly as possible can lessen the chances of further physical and psychological damage to occur.

What Is Involved in Codeine Addiction Treatment?

After you’ve taken the initial step to stop using, you will start the detox process. To ensure that you have gone through the safest and most efficient means of detoxing, you must enter a facility that specializes in this process. Codeine withdrawal is not life-threatening, but it can be extremely uncomfortable and dangerous if not done with medical supervision. Detox can be the difference between long-term sobriety and relapse. Medical professionals urge those attempting to get sober to attend these facilities.

In medical detox, you will be subject to 24-hour, seven days a week supervision. A staff of medical professionals will evaluate you to determine the best placement for your unique needs. The team will examine and ask questions about what your goals are and find out which therapies will be the most effective in treating your condition. They will administer medication to help alleviate the worst symptoms from withdrawal and be a resource for anything you require.

After successful completion of detox, the next step in the continuum of care will be to enter an addiction treatment center. Depending on the severity of your addiction, this can be done on either an inpatient or outpatient basis. Whether you enter into a residential treatment center and live on-site at the facility for up to 90 days, or participate in outpatient recovery, you will participate in therapies that aid in promoting sobriety. You will learn coping mechanisms and skills that will help you for the rest of your life. You will create a relapse prevention plan that is geared toward helping you long after you’ve finished.

Research shows that the importance of staying at least a minimum of 90 days in treatment for the most effective results. While all people are unique, their recovery process should be treated the same. Addiction treatment should address the root of the issue and gain understanding and skills to avoid relapse. 

How Dangerous Is Codeine?

As mentioned previously, codeine has only a fraction of morphine’s strength, but taking the drug in excess can still lead to overdose and result in death. It is easier to overdose on codeine because its lack of strength has users taking more to achieve the desired effect. Due to it being a “weak” opioid, it is often seen as a safer alternative. Codeine slows down breathing and heart rate. This can lead to dizziness or a loss of consciousness. Signs of a codeine overdose include:

  • Shallow breathing
  • Clammy skin
  • Lightheadedness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Weak pulse
  • Excessive vomiting
  • Low blood pressure
  • Blue lips
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Cardiac arrest

If someone has overdosed on codeine, you must immediately call 911 to avoid serious and permanent organ damage or death. Overdose on this drug can lead to death, so it’s critical that a person receives the medical care they need as soon as possible.

Codeine Abuse Statistics

  • 11.4 million people misused prescriptions in 2017.
  • 42,249 people died from overdose on opioids in 2017.
  • 81,00 people used heroin for the first time in 2017 alone.

Start Your Journey To Recovery Today

If you or someone you care about is struggling with codeine dependence or addiction and ready to start the recovery process, Ocean Breeze Recovery is ready and waiting to help you today. We offer intensive outpatient treatment and a partial hospitalization program. If you are looking for medical detox and residential treatment, we offer that at our sister facility, Arete Recovery, located in Pembroke Pines, Florida.Call 844-554-9279 now to speak with one of our addiction specialists about which of our treatment programs is best for you or your loved one. You also can contact us online for more information.


Sison, P. (2018, August 09). Number of opioid-addicted women who delivered babies quadrupled in 16 years – The Boston Globe. Retrieved from

Public Affairs. (n.d.). What is the U.S. Opioid Epidemic? Retrieved from Codeine. (2019, January 12) Sinha, S. MD. from

RxList. Codeine. Side Effects. Cunha, J. DO, FACOEP (Retrieved 2019 November) from (2016, December 8) Codeine Withdrawal: What It Is and How to Cope. Symptoms. Case-Lo, C. , Rosoldi-Cochrane, Z. MS, FASCP from

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