Our livers convert codeine into morphine, and so everyone is at some risk from taking the drug—but the greatest risk is among the young, whose livers break down the drug the quickest, and in those who suffer from interrupted or shallow breathing when they are asleep. The drug could slow the breathing rate even further, and to a fatal extent.
The alert has been issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which says it is time to ban codeine. A similar warning has already been issued by the World Health Organization and America’s drug regulator, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and yet the drug is still widely available in pharmacies and without a prescription.
It’s used in everyday painkillers and cough syrups, and doctors are still prescribing it to young patients, often following surgery. In fact, says the AAP, more than 800,000 patients under the age of 11 years were prescribed codeine between 2007 and 2011 in the US, most frequently by ear, nose and throat specialists, followed by dentists, paediatricians and family doctors.
Although codeine is an effective pain-killer, safer therapies need to be tried, says the AAP.