Codeine Addiction

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Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Philippa Gold

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

Codeine was invented in 1830 by Frenchman Jean-Pierre Robiquet to replace addictive drugs derived from opium such as morphine. The medication is usually safe if used as recommended under medical supervision. However, codeine can cause addiction when misused.


Codeine addiction is widespread. The problem of codeine addiction is part of the current opioid crisis that is experienced by countries around the globe. Individuals addicted to codeine experience a routine in which they seek drugs, crave, use, build tolerance, and go through withdrawal. It is a vicious cycle that is difficult to break. Misuse comes in many forms and individuals who are addicted will usually be cognizant of their addiction.


Codeine: What is it?


Codeine falls into two categories of drugs. It is both an opioid and an antitussive. Codeine can be used to treat pain in an individual. When it is used to change the way in which the body feels pain, it is classed as an opioid. Codeine is also used in syrups and medications to suppress a cough. When used to suppress coughing, codeine is classed as an antitussive. Codeine can reduce activity in the part of the brain where the coughing response occurs.


Codeine can also be found in combination with other medications including acetaminophen, aspirin, carisoprodol, and promethazine-codeine. These are often found in cold and cough medications. Codeine is powerful and can help an individual manage their flu and/or cold symptoms. The drug cannot treat the symptoms of colds and/or flus nor can it eliminate them. There is a common misconception that some powerful cold medicines can wipe away the symptoms an individual feels when under the weather. This is not true.


There are some brand names used for codeine that include:


  • Brontex (codeine, guaifenesin)
  • Guiatuss AC (codeine, guaifenesin)
  • Nalex AC (brompheniramine, codeine)
  • Phenergan VC with Codeine (codeine, phenylephrine, promethazine)
  • Robitussin AC (codeine, guaifenesin)
  • Vanacof (codeine, dexchlorpheniramine, phenylephrine)

Most individuals that become addicted to codeine start off taking the drug for a medical reason. Codeine’s signs of addiction are very similar to other opioids. Misuse can lead to a variety of problems including death if large doses are consumed.

Understanding Codeine Addiction


High doses of codeine can produce dangerous side effects. An individual can become addicted to the drug by using it routinely. It is likely an increase in dosage will occur over time. Codeine is like other opioids which depress the central nervous system, with users feeling relaxed, euphoric, drowsy, and calm as their heart rate slows.


Most individuals become addicted to codeine by using it casually to begin with. A physical dependency is created over time as the individual continues to use it. This physical dependency leads to a full-blown addiction.


Codeine is a weaker painkiller than morphine, which may lead users to believe it is not harmful. In spite of the belief that codeine is not addictive, individuals continue to use it. Cough syrup and medication may be the most common way individuals ingest the drug. Some people may ingest cough syrup to get the drug in their system.


Large amounts of the codeine can lead to addiction. The more a person ingests, the more likely they are to become addicted. Addicts cannot function without the drug in their system once a dependency is created. Tolerance to codeine can be developed quickly. The increased demand for the drug and no way to get it can lead individuals to take street drugs. In most instances however a user will find a sympathetic GP or Private Doctor to write a prescription.


What are the signs of a codeine addiction overdose?


As tolerance grows in users, they can use large doses of codeine. Codeine addiction can lead to death due to overdose. If additional items such as alcohol or other opioids are combined with codeine, it can lead to an overdose.


Signs of a codeine overdose:


  • Difficulty breathing/struggling to catch breath
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Fainting/loss of consciousness
  • Cold sweaty skin
  • Dizziness
  • Extremely slow heartbeat


Reversing a Codeine Overdose


In a medical emergency first responders will likely administer Naloxone hydrochloride (NARCAN® or EVZIO®) if available. Naloxone can temporarily stop many of the life-threatening effects of overdoses from opioids, restore breathing and reverse the sedation and unconsciousness that are common during an opioid overdose.

It doesn’t take long for codeine users to develop issues due to their usage. Within three weeks of use, a sleep disorder can be created and codeine use for long periods can cause irreversible kidney and liver damage.

Side effects of Codeine addiction


Codeine addicts will discover a number of unfortunate side effects. Codeine users can find these side effects to be extremely dangerous leading to death. Symptoms can vary depending on the person and can be affected by length of use, dependency, and whether or not the user has co-occurring disorders.


Side effects of Codeine addiction include:


  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Clouded thinking
  • Impaired judgment
  • Sadness/depression
  • Dangerous drop in blood pressure
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Liver and kidney malfunction


It doesn’t take long for codeine users to develop issues due to their usage. Within three weeks of use, a sleep disorder can be created. Individuals may also experience sadness/depression, constipation, and digestion issues. People who use codeine for long periods can develop irreversible kidney and liver damage.


Certain behaviors such as injecting codeine with a hypodermic needle can lead to contracting other diseases. Diseases such as hepatitis B, C, and HIV can be contracted by users who inject codeine. In addition, heart problems can develop.


Codeine addiction withdrawal


Most individuals that become addicted to codeine start off taking the drug for a medical reason. Codeine’s signs of addiction are very similar to other opioids. Misuse can lead to a variety of problems including death if large doses are consumed.


Codeine addiction withdrawal symptoms:


  • Light headed/dizziness
  • Itchiness
  • Contracted pupils
  • Shallow/slow breathing
  • Disorientation/confusion
  • blue in the fingernails and/or lips
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Delirium and hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Cold sweats


Treatment options for codeine addiction


Anyone who develops an addiction to codeine has a physical dependency. If individuals stop using codeine, they will experience withdrawal once the drug leaves their system.


Persons seeking treatment from codeine addiction will begin treatment by going through detox. Individuals will slowly reduce the amount of codeine they use during detox. Codeine reduction continues until the body can function without the drug.


Addicts should experience detox at an in-patient facility under medical supervision. A period of inpatient rehab after detox is preferred, if possible, due to the high risk of release in early recovery with all Opioid addictions.

Last Updated: 11th February 2022

Codeine Addiction

Codeine mimics the actions of endogenous opioids by binding to the opioid receptors at many sites within the central nervous system (CNS).


Stimulation of mu-subtype opioid receptors results in a decrease in the release of nociceptive neurotransmitters such as substance P, GABA, dopamine, and noradrenaline.

Generic Name


Brand Names for Codeine

Brontex, Guiatuss, Nalex, Phenergan, Robitussin, Vanacof

Street Names

captain cody, cody, little c

Codeine Addiction in the News

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