Though many people associate the drug with cough syrup, codeine is actually an opioid drug, meaning it reduces pain and promotes a sense of relaxation but is also addictive. Intended to manage mild pain as well as conditions like cough and intestinal issues, codeine is one of the most popular opioid drugs used worldwide and is widely prescribed by doctors.
Because codeine is typically less effective against chronic pain than other opioid drugs, some users mistakenly believe it is also safer. Unfortunately, codeine remains addictive and can lead to similar physical and behavioral impacts as other opioid drugs such as OxyContin and morphine.
Codeine is commonly mixed into flavored drinks for recreational use, where it is referred to as “lean,” “drank,” or “sizzurp.” Individuals consume these drinks to experience a temporary feeling of sedation and calm, but, because the drug is mixed into a sugary liquid, it’s often very difficult to regulate the amount of codeine consumed. As a result, individuals who consume these drinks run the risk of overdose, seizures, and addiction.
What is Codeine?
Codeine is an opioid drug, meaning it shares painkilling properties found in the opium poppy. Doctors frequently prescribe codeine to help manage mild pain, suppress coughs, and lessen the symptoms of intestinal issues such as nausea and diarrhea.
Though it is commonly found in cough syrups, codeine is also included in other medications, including combined with Tylenol, ibuprofen, and muscle relaxing medications. Because the drug is easy to produce and cost-effective for pharmaceutical companies, it is one of the most widely prescribed opioids worldwide.
Because codeine is an addictive drug, products that contain the medicine are often restricted based on age or available only by prescription. Typically codeine is combined with other medications or included as part of a medicinal formula, rather than prescribed directly.
How Does Codeine Affect the Brain
As an opioid, codeine enters the bloodstream and binds with opioid receptors in the brain. Like other drugs in the opioid family, codeine slows down the nervous system, reducing pain and causing a temporary drowsy, calming effect.
When the drug enters the liver, the body converts a portion of the medicine to morphine, a powerful opioid pain-relieving chemical. In some cases, individuals who take codeine create too much morphine through this process, which releases toxins into the blood. As a result, doctors now recommend against prescribing codeine to vulnerable patients, including children and pregnant women.
Like other opioids, codeine can produce tolerance, when the body requires higher doses of the drug to achieve the original effect. This is often a precursor to addiction, which is why anyone taking codeine should be carefully monitored by a doctor. This is also why recreational use of the drug can have long-term consequences. For this reason, doctors often prescribe codeine in limited doses to manage specific conditions, without the ability for a patient to refill a prescription without approval or authorization.
Signs & Symptoms of Codeine Abuse
If you or a loved one are currently taking codeine for a medical purpose or are consuming codeine recreationally, it’s vital to be aware of the warning signs and symptoms of codeine abuse. Be particularly watchful for two types of symptoms: physical and emotional changes and behavioral changes.
Physical and emotional changes can include:
- Persistent drowsiness, lack of energy, or passive behavior
- Uneasiness, anxiety, or a sense of being “on edge”
- Unexplained bouts of manic energy or enthusiasm
- Difficulty with short-term memory
- Low sex drive
- Intestinal issues, including constipation and nausea
- Difficulty with bodily functions, including urination and breathing
- Thirst or dry mouth
- Lowered blood pressure
- Slowed breathing (respiratory depression)
As with other opioids, one of the biggest risks of codeine abuse is the slowing of critical body functions, including heart and breathing rate. If the breathing rate becomes too low, for example, individuals can fall into a state of hypoxia, when the body begins to shut down from lack of oxygen. In other cases, the body can slip into seizures or coma.
Behavioral changes that are common with codeine abuse include:
- Lack of interest in personal or professional responsibilities
- A sense of disinterest in the world outside of drug use
- Neglect of work, school, or family commitments
- Hoarding or collecting codeine prescriptions
- “Doctor shopping” or searching for a medical professional to renew a codeine prescription
- Using codeine prescriptions from a friend or family member
- Drinking codeine on a regular basis mixed with sugary drinks (“lean,” “drank”)
While an individual who is abusing codeine may be unwilling to discuss their behavior even with close family and friends, you can always begin a conversation with a doctor or an addiction recovery professional. They can help you understand treatment options and better prepare for a conversation with the individual struggling with addiction.
Codeine Withdrawal Symptoms
When an individual develops a tolerance to codeine, they require higher doses of that drug to achieve the same effects they experienced when they first consumed the drug. This is a common precursor to dependence, where the body becomes accustomed to the presence of the drug, and finally, addiction, in which an individual ignores warning signs, risks, and negative consequences in order to continue their drug use.
Yet there are times when an individual ceases their drug use, either intentionally or because they no longer have access to the drug. In some cases, individuals may decide to go “cold turkey” and quit using codeine altogether. In other cases, they may run out of codeine or limit their dosage to try to lessen their addiction.
In any case, individuals who quit using codeine suddenly will likely experience withdrawal symptoms, a phase in which the brain and body re-adjust to their normal baseline without codeine in the bloodstream.
Withdrawal symptoms from codeine can be uncomfortable and even dangerous, so it’s critical that anyone seeking to stop their chronic codeine use do so under the care of a medical professional or addiction recovery program.
Withdrawal symptoms of codeine can include:
- Intense cravings for codeine
- A sense of frustration and restlessness
- Flu-like symptoms (runny nose, chills, discomfort)
- Intestinal issues (nausea and vomiting)
- Discomfort or involuntary movement in muscles
- Increased sweat production
- Higher levels of pain than normal with codeine
With proper care and treatment from an addiction treatment professional, the codeine withdrawal process can be safe, supported, and relatively manageable. If you’re considering stopping codeine use, please contact a medical or addiction treatment professional as soon as possible before taking any action.
Treatment for Codeine Addiction
Like other opioid drugs, codeine addiction can be challenging but is treatable. Whether an individual is using codeine for medical purposes and has developed addictive behaviors or they are consuming the drug recreationally, an addiction treatment program can help.
Because opioids interact with the brain by binding with opioid receptors, many treatment programs provide individuals with opioid addictions a form of Medication Assisted Treatment or MAT. These treatment programs utilize carefully-managed medications such as naltrexone, which acts as an opioid antagonist, stopping opioid drugs from taking effect in the brain and body.
Yet Medication Assisted Treatment is not enough to overcome addiction. Because addiction also involves personal, social, and emotional choices and consequences, most treatment providers also incorporate individual and group therapy into their recovery programs. Many utilize therapeutic techniques led by trained addiction experts in both one-on-one and group sessions to help strengthen positive behaviors and lessen the risk of relapse.
As we do at Solution Based Treatment & Detox, reputable providers should understand that recovery is a lifelong commitment. To that end, we offer aftercare support for clients who have completed addiction treatment, as well as support via an alumni network or other system to keep clients in touch and engaged.
Codeine addiction may feel overwhelming, but it isn’t a life sentence. If you’re ready to recover, contact our team today for more information about your next steps.
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