When it comes to addictive substances, there are many that may come to mind. Initially, we often focus on ones like alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, or perhaps even heroin. At various times, each of these have been a primary concern for both individuals and entire cultures. However, there are many substances besides these, and many of these other substances have been quite problematic over the years. In fact, millions upon millions of people have fallen prey to the addictive power of these mind-altering substances. And some of the most dangerous of all are ones that don’t immediately come to mind, including codeine. Of course, we’ve all at least heard of codeine, but there are few who are aware of the substance’s background; in particular, not many know just how closely related codeine is to drugs like heroin and morphine.
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What exactly is codeine?
In order to get a thorough understanding of codeine, it’s important to, first, start with opiates as a whole, which is a story that begins with a substance called opium. As you’re surely aware, opium is a narcotic substance that’s derived from the seeds of the opium poppy. According to historical records, we have quite a lengthy history with opium, dating back at least several thousands of years. Initially, opium was used for spiritual practices as well as for primitive medical procedures, but the drug was eventually found to have immense value as a recreational substance. It was populations in places like Egypt, Syria, Greece, and various others in Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, and Western Asia — mostly centralized around the Mediterranean — that had started using opium for these purposes before sharing the drug with surrounding regions.
For the most part, opium has strong associations with China, which is not undeserved. When opium made its way into China from the Mediterranean, the Chinese quickly learned of opium’s addictive power. It didn’t take long for so-called ‘opium dens’ — places where individuals could go to smoke opium recreationally — to emerge throughout China, coinciding with a surge in opium addiction. Of course, opium would eventually make its way to the United States, too. In the early-nineteenth century, Chinese emigrants who traveled to America to help build the new railroads brought opium with them, resulting in opium use — and corresponding opium dens — emerging throughout the U.S. We quickly learned of the addictive power of opium, which led to research into alternatives.
In Europe, researchers discovered that opium’s effects were the result of two main alkaloids: morphine and codeine. It was the discovery of these two alkaloids that led to the development of most of the opioid substances that cropped up over the next century, including heroin, oxycodone, and hydrocodone.
Specifically, codeine was first isolated in 1832 by Pierre Robiquet, a French chemist who had been experimenting with different methods of isolated morphine from opium. Of course, there are many other opiate drugs used all over the world, by since its discovery, codeine remains the number one most-used opiate and is one of the most commonly used of all drugs. Part of the reason why codeine has remained so popular is because it is much more effective when administered orally than other opiates; in fact, most other opiate drugs require intravenous administration for the level of efficacy that codeine demonstrates orally. As well, codeine has an extremely wide safety margin with a strength that ranges between 8 and 12 percent of that of morphine although this figure can vary from person to person.
Although considered an opiate, codeine isn’t used in the same way as most other opiate drugs, which are usually painkillers. Instead, codeine is most commonly used in cough medications; however, some of its other uses included as a treatment for diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome. Recent research has suggested that codeine could be effective in treating pain associated with cancer, but with increased incidence of negative side effects. Recent studies have also indicated the possibility that codeine produced naturally in the body may function as a neurotransmitter in the brain, similar to dopamine, serotonin, and other common neurotransmitters.
Effects of codeine
One of the greatest strengths of codeine, especially when compared to other opiate substances, is that it’s associated with very few and much milder side effects. However, that's not to say that codeine doesn’t have any side effects at all. Notably, codeine doesn’t offer the same level of euphoria as other opiates; although euphoria can be achieved, it requires much more of the drug. Some of the most common effects of codeine include feelings of being ‘drunk’ or in an altered state of consciousness, clumsiness, drowsiness, dry mouth, and possible dizziness. As well, there are a number of possible negative side effects that can come from using codeine. The most common side effects of codeine include nausea, constipation, vomiting, dysphoria, confusion, skin rashes as if having an allergic reaction, depressed respiration, and decrease in heart rate and/or blood pressure.
Detox from Codeine and Withdrawal Symptoms
Like with other opiates, a person can become dependent on codeine if he or she uses the substances frequently over a period of time. If he or she were to be unable to obtain or imbibe codeine, he or she would experience withdrawal symptoms. The symptoms most commonly associated with codeine withdrawal include sweating, nausea, physical discomfort or pain in the joints and muscles, mood swings, anxiety, insomnia, loss of appetite, diarrhea and/or vomiting, inability to concentrate or think clearly, yawning, and watery eyes.