Cough Syrup With Codeine: Benefits and Risks

Page content

Cough Syrup With Codeine

Codeine is in the opiate class of drugs and is most commonly used as a pain reliever or cough suppressant. Codeine is often combined with other medications such as acetaminophen, antihistamines, decongestants or expectorants.

Cough is a reflex intended to clear obstructions and foreign matter from the throat and bronchial passages. Obstructions include excessive fluid and mucus or irritations such as allergens. As a cough suppressant, codeine acts on the central nervous system to suppress the cough center of the brain. Although codeine does not suppress all coughs, it has been shown to reduce the frequency of chronic coughs in adults.


Cough syrup with codeine suppresses coughs more effectively than cough medicines without codeine, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Preparations containing codeine are available in formulations containing a variety of additional medications useful in treating the symptoms associated with respiratory infections, for example, chest congestion or fever. As a member of the opiate class of drugs, codeine is thought to have fewer side effects than other opiate medications but these claims are unsupported by clinical data.

Side Effects

Codeine is associated with a number of side effects including drowsiness, dizziness or lightheadedness, nausea and vomiting, mopod changes, constipation, abdominal pain and difficulty urinating. More serious side effects include difficulty breathing or swallowing, rapid heartbeat, rash, vision changes and seizures. Codeine is potentially habit forming and it is possible to overdose. Signs of an overdose are breathing difficulties, extreme drowsiness, fainting or loss of consciousness, dizziness, cold and clammy skin and a slow heartbeat. Overdose can cause respiratory failure and death.

Use in Children

Cough syrup with codeine should not be given to children younger than 16 years of age. The effectiveness of cough syrup with codeine has been studied in adults but not children. The adult liver inactivates codeine, but that metabolic pathway is undeveloped in young children. As a result, children have a higher risk of side effects, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.


Seek immediate medical attention if you develop severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, irregular heatbeat, seizures, or vision changes. Do not take cough syrup with codeine longer or more frequently than prescribed, or increase the dosage without consulting your healthcare provider. Coughing is a natural reflex to clear the air passages, so suppressing cough may allow secretions to pool and become infected. See your health care provider if your symptoms worsen.


National Library of Medicine: MedLine Plus: Codeine

American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Drugs: Use of Codeine- and Dextromethorphan-Containing Cold Remedies in Children

Pediatric Supersite: Is Codeine a Useful Medication in Pediatrics?