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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Pholcodine is a cough medication used to relieve dry and tickly coughs. It is found either on its own or in combination with other medications for colds and flu. This ingredient is not in any cough syrups available to buy in the US.

Occasionally a cough can be a symptom of a more serious problem. You should speak to your doctor if you have had a cough for more than three weeks, have severe symptoms such as fever, coughing up blood, have lost weight unexpectedly, or have chest pain or shortness of breath.

Doctor’s advice

How does it work?

Pholcodine is a cough suppressant (known in medical terms as an antitussive). It may stop you from coughing by suppressing brain activity responsible for the normal cough reflex.

Safety concern

There is already a known link between pholcodine and an increased risk of the very rare severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to muscle relaxants used during general anesthesia in surgery. After further research, there is more supporting evidence, but the overall risk is still very small.

How it is normally taken

Pholcodine is still available on prescription in the UK and is suitable for adults and children aged 6 years and older. The amount of pholcodine you are allowed depends on your age. Adults and children aged twelve and over can take 5 - 10 mg (milligram) of pholcodine up to 4 times a day. Children aged six to eleven can take 2 - 5 mg (milligram) of pholcodine up to 4 times a day. The dosing instructions and age restrictions can vary between different pholcodine products, so make sure you follow the specific guidance for the product you have purchased. However, always make sure you follow the instructions of your doctor or prescriber.

Who should not take the medication?

Do not take pholcodine if you are allergic to pholcodine or another ingredient listed in the medication. Children under 6 years should not take pholcodine. If you avoid ingesting alcohol in any form, please note that some pholcodine products do contain small amounts of alcohol in their production.

Speak with your doctor or pharmacist before taking pholcodine if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, have liver or kidney problems, diabetes, or have respiratory conditions such as asthma or COPD, as the medication may not be suitable for you.

Pholcodine can interact with other medications, such as certain antidepressants called monoamine oxidase inhibitors, medications for high blood pressure, and medications that can cause drowsiness. If you take any prescription, over-the-counter or herbal medicines, ask your doctor or pharmacist to check if they are safe to take alongside pholcodine.

Are there any side effects?

As with all medications, some people may experience side effects. These can include nausea and vomiting, constipation, drowsiness, dizziness, and confusion. If pholcodine makes you feel drowsy, you should avoid driving or working. Also, it is best to avoid drinking alcohol when taking pholcodine, as it can worsen your side effects. You should speak with your doctor or pharmacist if you are concerned about any side effects.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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