Everything You Need to Know About Codeine

Your codeine FAQs

You might have heard of codeine, maybe you’ve been prescribed it for pain or as a cough medicine, but what is it really?

Today we’re going to take a good look at codeine and answer all of the questions you’ve been asking about this medication and what it can do.

What is codeine?

Codeine is a painkiller which can be used for stronger, or longer lasting pain.

It can help to ease pain that can’t be easily controlled by other everyday painkillers, like ibuprofen, paracetamol, or aspirin.

Codeine can be used at the same time as some other painkillers, giving you the benefits of both medicines and making it easier to keep stronger pains under control.

For example, you can buy a combination codeine and paracetamol, which is called co-codamol, over the counter at most pharmacies.

Although codeine can be a real help when you’re struggling to manage pain, you should only take it for shorter periods of time, and should speak to your doctor or Chemist 4 U pharmacist if you find that you need to take codeine-based medications for more than 3 days.

When would you use codeine?

Codeine can be used to ease lots of different aches and pains, and some formulations of codeine can also be used to treat diarrhoea or dry coughs.

However, if you’re not sure whether you should take codeine, you should ask your doctor of pharmacist for more advice.

The best rule of thumb to follow when you’re considering taking this medicine, is to only take it when you really need it.

Lots of everyday pains, like headaches, can be managed effectively with paracetamol, ibuprofen, or similar products, so codeine won’t always be necessary.

Some of the most common reasons why people use codeine include:

  • Migraines or headaches
  • Cramps or period pain
  • Dental pain or toothache
  • Rheumatic and muscular pain
  • Sprains and strains
  • Swollen joints
  • Neuralgia
  • Sciatica
  • Lumbago

Is codeine addictive?

If you take too much codeine or take codeine for long periods of time, you may become addicted, although this is rare.

If you’re addicted to codeine, you may find that you feel irritated or experience withdrawal symptoms if you don’t take your next dose at the usual time.

If you’re not sure whether or not you’re addicted to codeine, you should speak to your doctor or pharmacist who will be able to help you to find out whether you’re suffering with addiction.

If you are addicted, your doctor can help you to formulate a plan to treat your addiction and can introduce you to some useful resources and support networks, like Talk to Frank.

What happens when you go through codeine withdrawal?

If you’ve been taking codeine for a while, or take higher strength codeine, you may experience withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking this medicine too quickly.

If this happens, you may experience symptoms such as:

  • Feeling agitated
  • Feeling anxious
  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Nervous tremors
  • Yawning
  • Runny nose
  • Sleep disturbance or insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea
  • Cramps and muscle spasms

Withdrawal symptoms aren’t any fun, so if you need help managing withdrawal, you should speak to a medical professional.

I know it sounds like I’m repeating myself until I’m blue in the face with this one, but your doctor or pharmacist really are the best people to see if you’re not sure about anything codeine related.

Why can’t I buy codeine all the time?

If you’ve ever had to buy codeine from a pharmacist, whether that’s online on in person, you may find that you’ve not been able to buy as much codeine as you may have wanted, or that you had to wait for a certain period of time before you were able to buy more.

This is because codeine is an addictive drug, and it can be abused if placed into the wrong hands.

For example, codeine can be mixed with some other medicines to create cocktails that are not only addictive, but extremely dangerous.

This is why the amount of codeine you can buy over the counter is restricted, and as you should only take codeine for 3 days without a prescription, I think we can all agree that this is a very sensible idea.

Why can you buy codeine over the counter?

So, if codeine is addictive and can be abused, why can it be bought over the counter at all?

Well, the fact still remains that codeine is a very effective medicine, and can make all the difference when managing moderate pains, diarrhoea, or dry coughs.

As well as this, the dosage of codeine which is available over the counter is quite low, and it’s difficult to become addicted to this formulation when it’s taken as medical professionals recommend.

The regulations that pharmacies have in place help to reduce the chances of addiction and abuse, so we can still use this very effective painkiller when we really need it.

Does codeine have any side effects?

Codeine absolutely can have side effects, as most medications do, and these are on top of the potential addiction and withdrawal symptoms.

Lots of people won’t experience any side effects at all when taking codeine, and others may just see minor side effects, but others can experience symptoms that are more serious.

Some of the most common side effects of codeine include:

  • Constipation
  • Feeling sick or vomiting
  • Feeling drowsy
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling confused
  • Vertigo
  • Dry mouth
  • Headaches

Can you take codeine if you’re pregnant?

If you’re pregnant, you should not take codeine and should find another reliable medication that can help to ease any aches and pains.

Codeine has been linked to problems during early pregnancy which could affect your unborn baby, and if you take codeine at the end of your pregnancy you run the risk that your baby could be born with a codeine addiction.

If you’re suffering with pain or any other condition which you’d typically use codeine for, then you should speak to your doctor or Chemist 4 U pharmacist before you take any medication during pregnancy.

They’ll be able to help you to choose a medication that will help to ease your symptoms and will be safe for both you and your baby.

Can you take codeine if you’re breastfeeding?

If you’re breastfeeding, you should not take codeine, as it could still be dangerous for your baby at this point.

When you take codeine, it breaks down in your body and small amounts of it can pass into your breast milk, and then to your baby.

This can give your baby breathing problems or cause other medical problems, so play it safe and speak to your doctor or pharmacist so they can recommend a safer option.

Can you drive if you’re taking codeine?

Your ability to drive while taking codeine will depend entirely on you and how your body responds to this medicine.

We’re going to have to look at the law for this one, so bear with me while we get technical here.

Although codeine is perfectly legal when taken with a prescription or as recommended by a medical professional, there are still restrictions on when you can and can’t drive while taking this medicine.

Basically, you shouldn’t drive if you find that codeine makes you feel sleepy, dizzy, clumsy, affects your vision, or makes you unfit to drive in any way.

The law states that it’s illegal for you to drive if any drugs you’re taking, legal or illegal, make you unfit to be behind the wheel, and some of those common side effects we mentioned earlier could seriously impair your ability to drive.

The best thing for you to do is wait and see how codeine affects you when you’ve taken it and to only get behind the wheel if you’re absolutely sure that you’re safe and fit to do so.

If you’re ever unsure, speak to your doctor or pharmacist for advice, they’ll be able to help you to make sure that you’re legal and, most importantly, safe to drive.

Can I drink alcohol if I’m taking codeine?

If you’re taking codeine, you should avoid drinking alcohol until you’re sure how this medicine affects you.

Alcohol can increase your chances of experiencing the side effects of codeine, and it can make you feel more sleepy or drowsy.

Honestly, we’d say that you’re better off just giving alcohol a miss all together until you’ve completed your course of codeine, better safe than sorry!

Well now we’ve answered all of your frequently asked questions about codeine, we hope we’ve shed a little light on this medication and whether it’s right for you.

Again, if you’re ever unsure, ask your doctor or Chemist 4 U pharmacist for advice, they’ll help you to make the best choices for you.


Laura Henderson - Medical Content Writer
James O'Loan - CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist
James O'Loan , CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist on 19 June 2024
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