Codeine is used to treat mild to moderate pain and diarrhea. People usually swallow it in pills.
On its own, codeine is a prescription-only opiate painkiller. It’s used to treat pain that can’t be stopped by more common painkillers. This means you can’t buy it legally without a prescription.
Small amounts of codeine are sometimes mixed with other medicines – like paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin – and these can be bought from a chemist or pharmacy.
Because codeine is highly addictive, medicines that contain it (such as co-codamol) carry warnings on the packs about the risk of addiction. They advise that the person taking the medicine doesn’t take it for more than three days at a time without medical advice.
People who take codeine illegally, or abuse their prescription (don’t take it how they should), sometimes crush up the tablets and snort them.
How does it make you feel?
Codeine is an opioid medication prescribed to reduce physical pain.
It can cause feelings of relaxation, drowsiness, confusion, nausea, itchiness and constipation, especially if taken in large doses.
How does it make people behave?
Codeine can sometimes make people feel drowsy and nauseous. People may look out of it or like they’re falling asleep.
How long the effects last and the drug stays in your system depends on how much you’ve taken, your size, whether you’ve eaten and what other drugs you may have also taken.
To kick in:
It takes around one hour for codeine to take effect.
How long it lasts:
Codeine lasts for around 3 to 4 hours depending on the dose taken.
After taking codeine, a person can feel tired, lethargic and washed out.
How long will it be detectable?
Codeine can show up on a urine test for up to 2 days.
Physical health risks
As with any prescribed medicine, codeine can cause side effects – and you should always read the list of common side effects included with a medication, and any warnings printed on the packaging.
Most people who take codeine as a painkiller don’t get any side effects, so long as they take the correct amount as prescribed by a doctor.
Taking more codeine than prescribed to you by a doctor, or taking illegal codeine (such as from a friend, a dealer or website), increases the risk of overdose and other side effects, such as:
Lower blood pressure and abnormal breathing, which can lead to respiratory arrest – which is when you stop breathing altogether.
Fatal side effects from another drug if the codeine is part of a combined medicine, such as co-codamol. These include: kidney failure, liver failure, indigestion or bleeding from the stomach.
As with other opiates, taking very high doses of codeine during pregnancy may lead to withdrawal symptoms in newborn babies.
Mental health risks
People sometimes take codeine to help them manage with stress and depression. Using any drug to escape bad feelings can increase the risk of becoming dependent on the drug.
However, long-term abuse of any mood-altering chemical – like codeine – can also contribute to symptoms such as anxiety and depression, so you could be making your mental health worse by taking it.
What is codeine cut with?
The codeine prescribed by doctors or bought from high street chemists has been made to a pharmaceutical standard and won’t have harmful impurities.
This may not be true for codeine bought from a dealer or over the internet, however. Codeine bought from dealers or online may not have had safety testing, and could be cut with other drugs.
Remember that testing kits can’t find everything too, so you can never be 100% sure of what you are taking. Even if the codeine tablet looks like a pharmaceutical product, there are plenty of counterfeits (fakes) that look like the real thing.
Can you get addicted?
Yes, codeine is addictive.
Over time codeine can produce cravings and a psychological desire to keep on using.
Some people get addicted to codeine after being prescribed it to treat physical pain. They can experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking the tablets and this can be a reason that people continue taking it or seek codeine illegally.
Tolerance can also build up, so that users have to take more just to get the same effects or to avoid unpleasant withdrawals.
Physical dependence is common in regular users. Withdrawal symptoms include:
- nervous tremors
- runny nose
- sleep disturbance
- abdominal cramps and muscle spasms
This is a Class B drug, which means it’s illegal to have for yourself, give away or sell.
Possession can get you up to 5 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both.
Supplying someone else, even your friends, can get you up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both.
Like drink-driving, driving when high is dangerous and illegal. If you’re caught driving under the influence, you may receive a heavy fine, driving ban, or prison sentence.
If the police catch people supplying illegal drugs in a home, club, bar or hostel, they can potentially prosecute the landlord, club owner or any other person concerned in the management of the premises.
Additional law details
Codeine on its own is only available on prescription, unauthorised possession is illegal. Small amounts of codeine are in some medicines which can be bought without prescription but only in pharmacies.
These medicines include cough syrups, and tablets or capsules where the codeine is combined with other medicines, such as paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin, for treating headaches, period pain etc.
Codeine containing medicines carry warnings on the packs about the risk of addiction and advise that the non-prescription medicines should only be used for up to three days at a time without medical advice.