If you’ve ever come down with a bad cough or even bronchitis, you’ve found yourself in a doctor’s office. Each breath you take with trepidation because inhaling too fast or too long might bring another coughing fit that feels like your lungs and chest muscles are pulling apart.

Plainly put, you’re in pain. One of the medications the doctor might prescribe is a prescription-strength cough medicine — which usually has codeine as the main ingredient that helps kill the pain.

When prescribed this way, it is used to help relieve mild to moderate pain. Often, medications with codeine are paired with promethazine (for coughs) or Tylenol (for toothaches).

It sounds innocent enough, Codeine is used to treat pain. However, codeine has a darker side; a legacy that’s defined by addiction and overdose.

Codeine Side Effects

Beyond an ingredient used in cough suppressants, codeine is an opioid drug. Heroin, oxycontin, fentanyl, and Percocet are other narcotics that are classified as opioids. Some are available as a prescription, but drugs like heroin are always an illegal narcotic.

Opioids don’t just relieve pain. They can make people feel relaxed and high. Many opiates are used recreationally and are highly addictive and Codeine is no different. Some of the side effects of codeine use include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Slowed or shallow breathing
  • Euphoria

Misuse or overuse of codeine and other opioids can cause hypoxia; the medical term for slowed breathing, which can have serious, long-term effects including coma, brain damage, and even death.

So Is Codeine Dangerous?

Codeine is dangerous when taken recreationally or taken not as prescribed. For the most part, if someone takes codeine to treat their health condition and relieve pain, and then quickly stops use, there is little danger.

There’s one problem, though. Like all opioids, codeine is highly addictive, and the euphoric feeling that people feel causes many to abuse their prescription medication. This problem didn’t begin overnight but began in the late 1990s when pharmaceutical companies falsely assured the medical community and the general public that people would not become addicted.

In 2017 alone, more than 47,000 people in the United States died from complications caused by opioid overdose. Another 1.7 million people have been estimated to suffer from substance abuse and addiction related to prescription drugs (not including the more than 600,000 people suffering from heroin addiction).

The abuse of prescription drugs poses one of the great health crises of our lifetimes. According to the most recent research published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 130 people die every day from opioid overdoses.

If It’s So Dangerous Why Is Codeine Prescribed?

In September 2019, researchers reported that Americans and Canadians are nearly 7x more likely to fill a prescription for an opioid than people in Sweden (75% compared to 11%). Does this mean that Americans have a lower tolerance for pain than their Swedish counterparts?

Definitely not. The researchers aren’t sure. Still, they do suggest that “U.S. people think about opioids as pain relief in a drastically different way than other places,” explains Dr. Mark Neuman, an anesthesiologist and coauthor of the study.

This information comes despite the Food and Drug Administration’s newest efforts to curb the amount, and reason, that codeine can be prescribed. In 2017, the FDA restricted the use of codeine and tramadol for children 12 years old and younger. The FDA now requires its strongest warning label on the drug.

Codeine is still prescribed for pain. It can be a great help to people who are recovering from surgery or other ailments. However, it is vital to always take as prescribed and under the supervision of a doctor.

Help for Codeine Addiction

Whether someone first became addicted through taking a prescription or began abusing Codeine recreationally, any opiate addiction is a serious mental health disease. There are many paths to recovery from addiction, but it always starts with the first step: reaching out to a trusted person or rehab center for help.

From there, treatment for opiates and recovery from addiction is possible. It’s not easy, and it’s not fun. But through treatment and support, the ex-user can lead a happier and healthier life than they ever imagined while in the throes of addiction.

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