Be Careful with Codeine to Avoid Serious Consequences

July 28, 2022

Think back to the last time you had a persistent cough. Maybe you tried to ignore it for a couple of days. But soon enough, that cough may have been disrupting your sleep as well as making your days fairly miserable. So you headed off to see your doctor.

Having a Cough Can Be Miserable, But So Can a Codeine Addiction

woman pouring cough medicine into a measuring cup - codeine

There’s a reasonable chance that your doctor prescribed codeine to help suppress your cough. 

Now imagine that it is your child who has the persistent cough. Your doctor’s prescribing decision may well be the same. From 2014 through 2019, medical professionals wrote 1,145,357 prescriptions for codeine and hydrocodone cough and cold medication for children up to 17 years old.

So if your doctor is reasonably likely to prescribe codeine to you and to your kids, it is reasonable to assume the drug is safe, right?

Well, yes and no. 

Codeine is an effective cough suppressant and can also be used for the treatment of pain. It’s that second use that gives a hint toward the potential hazards of codeine. Like many other drugs used for pain management, codeine is an opiate. 

And as the ongoing opioid epidemic has taught us, misuse of opiates can lead to the development of a substance use disorder and a range of devastating side effects. Codeine can set that chain of events in motion.

Codeine: A Potential Problem—And a Gateway to More Powerful Drugs

Relatively speaking, codeine is one of the less powerful opiates. But for some people, that lower strength is part of the problem. 

As a codeine user gets relief from a cough or from pain (or both), they may come to enjoy the positive feelings—including a sense of relaxation or even a feeling of euphoria—the drug can induce. But as they build up a tolerance to the drug, those good feelings may be harder to come by. So they may start taking more of the drug than they should. That decision exposes the user to some serious risks because at high doses codeine can cause respiratory failure, cause a person to fall into a coma, or even cause death.

But assuming a person continues to build a tolerance and discovers that codeine is no longer effective at producing the positive feelings they crave, they may find themselves tempted to dabble with more powerful drugs. Those drugs may include oxycodone, morphine, or even heroin. A willingness to pursue illicit sources of opioids and opiates is a huge red flag indicating a substance use disorder has developed.

The Oft Repeated Advice Really Does Apply

How can you lessen the chance that you will develop a substance use disorder centered on codeine? The answer will no doubt sound very familiar.

When it comes to codeine you must be sure to use the drug only as directed, and you must always follow the instructions on the label.

You have, no doubt, heard variations on those words more times than you can count—and that is because they are absolutely essential and so bear frequent repeating. Following the guidance of your doctor and pharmacist to the letter is undeniably the best way to prevent a prescription drug from becoming a problem.

Codeine Withdrawal Symptoms Make It Difficult to Stop

Ideally, once you come to the conclusion that you have developed a problem with codeine (or any other pharmaceutical), you could simply make the decision to stop taking it and all would be well.

But this ideal version of events is rarely possible. That’s because your body and brain become used to the presence of the drugs in your system. When the drug is suddenly no longer supplied, your system will let you know that it doesn’t much like this turn of events. You will start to experience withdrawal symptoms—including strong cravings for the drug that may seem simply impossible to ignore.

At this point, you are stuck between a rock and a hard place. You know you shouldn’t keep taking the drug. But you can’t stop taking the drug. 

So what should you do? You should get treatment for your substance use disorder at a fully certified residential treatment facility.

The Farley Center Is Here to Help

At The Farley Center, we offer medically supervised detoxification, which makes it possible for you to successfully stop taking codeine or other drugs. Once you have regained your sobriety, you will enter our robust rehabilitation program—which includes both group and individual therapy—so that you can learn the strategies and skills that will be useful to you as you begin your recovery journey. 

After residential treatment comes to end, you will continue to have access to the Farley Center’s resources and support because we are committed to a continuum of care. If you need help overcoming a substance use disorder, we are here to meet your needs with personalized, compassionate, evidence-based care.