What is Codeine?
Codeine is an opiate painkiller, part of the same class of drugs as heroin, morphine, and oxycodone. Doctors can prescribe it for moderate pain or as a cough suppressant that can be taken orally as a tablet, capsule, or syrup. As a painkiller, it is usually combined with Tylenol (acetaminophen), known as Tylenol 3. As a cough suppressant, codeine is combined with the antihistamine promethazine to make promethazine-codeine cough syrup. Both prescriptions have legitimate medical uses; however, they should only be taken according to the doctor’s instructions for dosage and timing. Purposefully taking a prescription drug more frequently than prescribed or without a prescription is abuse.
While many people use codeine responsibly, some take recreational codeine to achieve a high, purchasing it off the street or “doctor shopping” for multiple prescriptions. Even though it is a prescription drug, codeine is addictive and affects the body similar to other opiates.
Getting High on Codeine
Codeine targets the brain and central nervous system, binding to cell receptors to prevent the release of the neurotransmitter GABA. GABA regulates dopamine production, so when GABA is not released, dopamine floods the brain. This flooding produces a euphoric high: feelings of pleasure, peace, and apathy. Repeated use leads to tolerance: the same dose fails to produce any effect and the user will have to use codeine more frequently or at a higher dose to achieve the high.
Why Is Codeine So Addictive?
People may not worry about becoming dependent on codeine, thinking that it must be safe because doctors prescribe it. However, because of the way it affects the brain, codeine is highly addictive, with users developing a dependency in as few as 5 to 7 days of use. The brain quickly learns to rely on codeine for feelings of pleasure and will crave codeine, in spite of any negative effects. Many users begin using codeine to manage true pain but end up addicted. Codeine addiction can also be a gateway to abusing other opiate drugs.
Codeine Drug Effects
Codeine acts as a central nervous depressant, slowing down the entire body. Codeine overdose can cause death. Other short-term side effects include:
- Blurred vision
- Depressed breathing rate
- Irritability and moodiness
Long-term abuse leads to serious damage in the body, such as:
- Liver damage
- Kidney damage
- Cardiovascular damage
- Stomach damage
The drugs that are often compounded with codeine can have dangerous side effects. Large doses of Tylenol (generic name acetaminophen) damage the liver, sometimes fatally. As codeine abusers develop tolerance to codeine, they use more and more over time, inadvertently overdosing on acetaminophen as well. Promethazine-codeine cough syrup can depress the central nervous system so much as to cause death by slowing or stopping the heart or lungs. This risk is even higher when the syrup is combined with alcohol.
Withdrawal and Treatment
When a person discontinues codeine use, the body will go through a withdrawal period that can last for several days. Withdrawal is unpleasant and shares many symptoms with withdrawal from other opiates, such as heroin. The user may suffer from:
- Muscle pain
The fastest way to purge codeine from the body is to quit “cold turkey,” but it is also the most difficult. Tapering the codeine usage to a lower dose, day by day, can be easier. Drug substitutes, such as methadone or suboxone, can help with the cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal and treatment under a doctor’s supervision can provide the best results.
If you or someone you love struggles with codeine addiction, we can help. Call our toll-free number today.