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Is Codeine An Opioid, Opiate, Or Narcotic?

Published on October 20, 2020
woman pouring proper amount of codeine cough syrup onto a spoon

Health care providers often prescribe codeine to treat mild to moderate pain. The substance also appears in certain over-the-counter cough syrups. Because codeine can make you feel euphoric or “high,” some people abuse it by taking it without following a doctor’s instructions.

Many individuals describe codeine as an opioid, some say it’s an opiate, and others call it a narcotic. All of these people are correct. To understand how that’s possible, you need to learn more about all three terms.  

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs used as pain relievers. They work by binding to opioid receptors in the central nervous system, peripheral nervous system, and gastrointestinal tract. Common side effects of opioids include drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and constipation.

Opioids are grouped into one of three categories depending on how they’re made:

Synthetic Opioids

Synthetic opioids are created in laboratories. Entirely manmade, they include fentanyl (brand names Actiq, Duragesic, and Sublimaze), tramadol (Ultram, Ultram ER, Ryzolt, and ConZip), methadone (Dolophine, Methadose, and Methadone Intensol), and meperidine (Demerol).

Semi-Synthetic Opioids

Like synthetic opioids, semi-synthetic opioids are produced in laboratories. However, they’re not completely man made; instead, they’re chemically modified versions of opiates, which occur naturally. 

They include heroin, oxycodone (Oxycontin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), buprenorphine (Subtuex), and hydromorphone (Exalgo).


Opiates belong to a class of naturally occurring organic compounds called alkaloids. They’re found in the opium poppy plant. Examples include codeine, morphine, and thebaine.

Is Codeine An Opiate?

As stated above, opiates are a naturally occurring group of opioids that includes codeine.

Is Codeine A Narcotic?

According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), narcotics is simply another word for opioids, including codeine. However, some people also use the term to describe other controlled substances, such as cocaine and marijuana.

Codeine Addiction & Overdose

No matter what you call it, codeine is highly addictive (as are many other opioids). 

Even when prescribed by a doctor, long-term codeine use can lead to tolerance (which means you need increasingly higher doses of the drug to achieve the desired effects) and physical dependence (which means your body relies on the drug to function normally).

When you develop a physical dependence on codeine and try to stop taking it, you may experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as:

  • anxiety
  • diarrhea
  • sweating
  • nausea or vomiting
  • insomnia
  • runny nose
  • abdominal cramps

In addition, people who are addicted to codeine face the risk of overdose. Overdose can occur when you take more codeine than your doctor prescribed. Signs include:

  • confusion
  • clammy, cold skin
  • itchiness
  • tiny pupils
  • muscle twitches
  • low blood pressure
  • trouble breathing
  • loss of consciousness

Call for emergency medical services immediately if you or someone you know shows these signs, as codeine overdose can be fatal.

If you or a loved one struggles with codeine addiction, it’s important to seek professional help at a substance abuse treatment program. 

Available on an inpatient or outpatient basis, these programs help patients safely detox from codeine while teaching them healthy coping skills to reduce the risk of relapse.

To learn more about the treatment options available for opioid addiction, please contact an Ark Behavioral Health specialist today.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Opioids
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) - Narcotics (Opioids)
U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus - Codeine
U.S. National Library of Medicine: Pain Physician - Opioid Complications and Side Effects

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