Information and support about the issues associated with codeine misuse

What is codeine?

codeine tablets

Cody, syrup, cough syrup, lean, opioid

Codeine is an ingredient contained in a number of prescription-only pain medicines. It is designed to serve a specific purpose, so when it is used responsibly as prescribed, codeine reduces pain sensations in the brain and also works as a treatment for dry coughs. Although it is considered a ‘weak’ opioid, people may intentionally take larger doses of codeine to get a ‘high’, seek pleasure/euphoria from the drug, or in some instances as an act of self-harm.


How do you know codeine USE is becoming a problem?

Codeine is often mistaken as a ‘safe’ drug because it is legal and can be prescribed, however it is in the same family of opioid medicines such as morphine, oxycodone, methadone and heroin, and can be highly addictive. Codeine affects everyone differently based on their health, body type, the amount taken, how frequently it is consumed and whether it is used with other drugs. Using codeine in combination with other drugs (e.g. sleeping tablets, sedatives, alcohol) can lead to accidental overdose or death. If you or someone you know begins to feel the urge to take codeine without pain symptoms or outside their prescribed use, this can be a warning sign of the early stages of codeine dependence.

A dependency on codeine can sometimes have tell-tale signs, such as:

  • Irritability 
  • Repeatedly mentioning codeine or making vague complaints about being in pain , 
  • Taking higher than normal doses of codeine at any time
  • Asking others to get codeine or prescriptions for codeine
  • Trying to buy codeine online
  • Unsuccessful efforts to cut down
  • Spending a lot of time securing, using or recovering from codeine use
  • Having problems with work, education (i.e. school/University) or friendships
  • Using codeine in dangerous situations 
  • Experiencing cravings and withdrawals

How does codeine make me feel?

Codeine abuse can have serious effects on your mood, behaviour and physical well-being and mental health. During excessive use of codeine, you may experience the following symptoms: 

  • Feeling drowsy or dizzy
  • Reduced physical pain
  • Nauseous and/or vomiting   
  • Extreme relaxation/feeling very mellow
  • Slurred speech
  • Feeling sleepy and/or intoxicated
  • Shallow breathing
  • Difficulty urinating or constipation
  • Reduced memory, confusion
  • Dry mouth and itchiness or rash
  • Changes in vision
  • Decreased heart rate or palpitations
  • Euhporia 'high' or restlessness
  • Loss of motivation
  • impaired judgement

Longer term effects of codeine use include: 

  • Mental health problems
  • Reduced sex drive 
  • Needing more codeine to get the same effect
  • Relationship breakdown
  • Financial and work problems
  • No motivation for exercise or going outdoors
  • Trouble at work or school
  • Sleeping problems
  • Seizures 
  • Psychosis
  • Organ damage, especially the liver
  • Long term severe constipation
  • Muscle spasms

What to do in case of codeine overdose or Harmful use

Please seek medical attention immediately if you or your friends experience any unwanted effects of codeine use. Phone 000 for an ambulance immediately and tell the operator that there has been an overdose. If you are calling about your own use, do not try to hide the fact that you have taken codeine – be completely honest about the amount and how recently it was used. Whilst waiting for emergency services, immediately inform a friend or family member who can support you during this time.

The signs of overdose to be aware of include: 

  • Inability to pass urine
  • Severe constipation and obstructed bowel
  • Agitation
  • Cold, clammy skin with a bluish tinge
  • Very slow shallow breathing
  • Hallucinations and seizures
  • Coma and death 
If you or someone you know has taken a high dose of codeine:

If you are calling for someone you know, you can help them by phoning 000 for emergency services and informing them how long ago they took codeine, how much was consumed and what brand or form it was. Try to find out if the person has taken other drugs (including alcohol) as this can increase the risk of serious complications. Stay with the person and call a friend or family member for assistance immediately. The quicker and more accurate information that is passed on, the easier it is to help someone experiencing adverse effects from codeine. Usually the police will not be informed and will not attend unless ambulance officers feel their safety or the safety of others/a child is at risk, the person cannot be resuscitated or a crime is committed (such as theft or violence). The priority is making sure the person gets the right help immediately in an emergency.

Reducing the risks of codeine

The best way to reduce problems with codeine dependence is to ask for help. Many people develop codeine dependence secretly, and are unable to deal with the problems that arise on their own. Dependence of any kind can make people feel anxious or scared about giving up the drug, which results in the cycle continuing. Giving up codeine can be challenging because the body becomes used to functioning with the drug. The best way to overcome codeine dependence is to speak to a medical professional. Withdrawal symptoms can be intense within the first 48-72 hours after the last dose - seeking help before this is important so the right support is available to get through this period.

Stopping codeine use can result in ‘withdrawal’ symptoms, as the body is working on how to function without codeine. These symptoms can be unpleasant, differing from person to person and ranging from mild to severe. Withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Cravings for codeine
  • Restlessness/irritability/nervousness
  • Stomach issues (e.g. diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting)
  • Insomnia
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • High temperature or cold sweats
  • Yawning, crying, running nose
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mood changes and depression

Legal Issues

Although codeine is a legally prescribed medication, codeine dependence can still lead to trouble with the law. The effects of codeine can have serious and unexpected effects on your behaviour and your ability to control yourself normally. If engaging in non-prescribed use of codeine and driving a car, going to work or caring for children and you cause an accident, you would be drug tested. If you test positive for codeine in levels outside of your prescription, you could face serious legal problems including fines and/or a prison sentence.

Getting help for codeine use

If codeine is a problem for you or someone you know and you would like to speak to a real person to have your questions answered or to get advice on what to do next, call 1300 858 584 (Alcohol & Drug Foundation Information Line). 


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