How Addictive is Codeine? (This is How Fast it Happens)

Medically Reviewed

Codeine does not even come close to the potency of its chemical cousins: opioids like oxycodone, methadone, heroin, and fentanyl.

Yet, codeine cough syrup and other products are still capable of producing significant psychoactive effects that can produce addiction. Nowhere is codeine addiction more salient and consuming than in Lagos, Nigeria, some 5,000 miles away from U.S. shores in Africa.

“Grief, depression, a desire to be cool are just some of the reasons Nigerians are falling for this drug. Musicians sing about the high it gives you. Dealers peddle it in nightclubs and on the streets. Teenagers mix it with soft drinks, or swig it straight from the bottle at “syrup parties,” states a 2018 investigative report by BBC News.

The report chronicled the prevalence of codeine syrup addiction in Lagos, where people have reportedly been driven insane by the drug.

“Many of the syrup addicts in the rehab [center] can become so violent that staff chains them to the floor,” states the BBC report.

Codeine is not only addictive, but it can produce harrowing physical and psychological symptoms, along with life-threatening health complications.

What is Codeine?

Codeine is prescribed to treat mild-to-moderate pain and is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. It is also incorporated as an ingredient in cough medicine and acts as a suppressant.

Depending on how codeine is formulated, it can be classified as a Schedule II, III, or V drug under the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) list of controlled substances. What this means is that, depending on how it is incorporated, codeine can possess “a high potential for abuse which may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence” or — on the low end of the spectrum — “have a low potential for abuse” compared to other substances on the list.

Though its exact mechanism of action is not known, codeine does bind to opioid receptors in the brain and nervous system and stimulates the following areas:

  • The Limbic System: Codeine stimulates this region of the brain to trigger feelings of pleasure, relaxation, and contentment.
  • The Brainstem: Codeine works to block pain signals in this area. It also helps to slow breathing and halt coughing.
  • The Spinal Cord: Codeine works by decreasing pain in this region of the body.

What’s more, codeine is fast-acting. It can take anywhere between 10 to 30 minutes, on average, to go into effect. Codeine’s effects typically last between four-to-six hours. When people exceed the prescribed amount, codeine can be habit-forming, and they put themselves at risk for suffering a number of harmful effects.

Codeine Dangers

Codeine is not only addictive as a mild opioid, but it can also generate hazardous effects, along with life-threatening symptoms. The effects that occur with short-term use can compel someone to take larger doses of the drug.

The Effects Codeine Can Render Include:

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

In High Doses, Codeine Can Produce Life-Threatening Effects Such As:

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

Those conditions can cause permanent damage and even death, including a loss of consciousness, respiratory problems, and cardiac arrest.

And if That is Not Enough, the Long-Term Effects of Chronic Codeine Abuse Can Cause:

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

Codeine Withdrawal Symptoms

When people go through withdrawal for opioids, it means they require the drug in their system in order to function normally. Once the substance leaves their bodies, they experience physical disturbances. Those “disturbances” are withdrawal symptoms.

Someone in Withdrawal for Codeine Can Experience the Following:

  • Irritability
  • Anxiousness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Chills
  • Dilated pupils
  • Cravings for codeine or other opioids
  • Yawning
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Increased heartbeat
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Teary eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Appetite loss
  • Abdominal cramps

What makes opioids, even mild ones, so singularly addictive is their ability to impact the brain’s reward pathway profoundly. This impact compels people to use opioids repeatedly, which can expose them to overdose.

Codeine Overdose

Codeine is not on par with morphine in terms of potency, but at high enough doses and/or at a long enough duration, it can produce overdose, which can lead to permanent organ damage and death.

Overdose from Codeine Can Produce these Symptoms:

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

If someone has overdosed on codeine, you must immediately call 911.

How Professional Treatment Can Help You

An addiction to codeine requires the nuanced array of treatment services offered by a reputable, professional recovery program. For an addiction to a mild opioid such as codeine, treatment starts with medical detoxification.

In this type of detox, you will be administered medications to address the cravings and painful withdrawal symptoms.

Medical staff will also monitor your process and treat any withdrawal symptoms that arise to ensure a safe and comfortable detox.  Depending on the severity of your addiction, you could be recommended for residential or outpatient treatment.

In residential, you can receive comprehensive therapy and care to address the psychological and emotional components of your addiction.

A residential program provides room and board at the site where you will receive treatment.

In outpatient treatment, you can live independently and receive comprehensive care and life skills education to prepare you to re-enter the world as a newly sober person. The services that are typically offered in outpatient treatment include:

  • Substance abuse education
  • Cravings and triggers management
  • Life skills
  • Individual therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Mental health treatment
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • 12-step programs
  • Transitional living facility referrals (including sober living homes)
  • Relapse prevention training
  • Anger management
  • Random drug testing
  • Spirituality

In essence, a professional treatment program can help you achieve sustained recovery and wellness.

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