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Laudanum: Old World Remedy

Laudanum often is considered to be a “tincture of opium”. It contains many of the alkaloid opioids, which would include both morphine and codeine.Therefore, it contains a dense amount of morphine, and considered to be a narcotic.

Laudanum is classified as a Schedule II drug and a form of morphine because it’s active ingredient is morphine, the federal government regulates laudanum. ” It’s currently listed as a Schedule II drug under the Controlled Substance Act,” Paul Gaita writes in The Fix, “though it is considered an ‘unapproved drug’ by the Food and Drug Administration because it was manufactured prior to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938.”

Side Effects

The side effects and withdrawal symptoms of laudanum are similar to other opioids, which includes the following:

  • Euphoria: the pain relieving properties of laudanum flood the brain with the neurotransmitter dopamine, which not only makes people experience less physical discomfort, but also envelops them with a temporary, though heightened sense of wellbeing
  • Addiction: regular use of any opioid, including laudanum, can lead to physical dependency and addiction. Because of the neurochemical changes that occur in the brain, users develop a tolerance that requires more of drug to achieve it’s medical or recreational purposes and to stave off withdrawal symptoms
  • Slows breathing: like other opiates, it can lead to levels of respiratory depression that are dangerously low and, in many cases, lead to overdose and death
  • Constipation: likely one of the reasons that laudanum is still available by prescription today is because it constricts particular muscles in the body and cause constipation. In patients suffering dysentery, this is an effective treatment, but for a person with dependency on prescription painkillers, heroin or laudanum, this side effect can be very uncomfortable, painful and potentially toxic
  • Depression: as a person’s tolerance to opioids increases, the more imbalances there are in the brain’s chemistry. The once pleasurable “high” of the medication can morph in feelings of sadness, melancholy and, with addiction, hopelessness
  • Itchiness: though not everyone experiences all the side effects of any drug, on opioids, which release the body’s natural histamines, many people find that their face, as well as other areas of the body, itch
  • Withdrawal: users that stop cold turkey experience a range of the above symptoms and while withdrawal isn’t necessarily deadly, it’s extremely uncomfortable. Those who receive medical treatment for opioid addiction are sometimes prescribed benzodiazepines to help ease their symptoms

In fact, though, laudanum is still available today with a physician’s prescription. The medication is an alcoholic solution that contains 10 percent powdered opium and is now more commonly referred to as a “tincture of opium”.

“Doctors who resort too quickly to [opium] are lazy, they’re incompetent, they’re poorly trained, they’re behind the times,” according to

Mention the word laudanum and it conjures up images of dank, shadowy 19th century opium dens filled with troubled poets or Civil War medical tents where critically wounded soldiers are dosed with opioids right before a painful and gruesome surgical procedure.

Laudanum has played an interesting role in America’s centuries long love affair with opioids. During the Victorian-era, laudanum was considered a painkiller and cure all for ailments ranging from tuberculosis to a cough to insomnia. Now, doctors generally only prescribe the drug as a mild pain reliever, a strong anti-diarrheal medication and for withdrawal symptoms in infants born to opioid-addicted mothers, according to Live Strong.  Its principal use was as an analgesic and cough suppressant.

  • Olden Days Remedy: “A “Tincture of Opium” For Whatever Ails You

In the late 1800’s in America, an estimated 1 in 200 people were addicted to laudanum and other opioid powders, reports The Smithsonian. Not unlike the crisis of opioid addiction and overdoses the nation’s currently battling, those addicted some 120 years ago tended to be middle to upper-middle class whites that could afford to see a physician.

The British Journal of Psychiatry, in 1889, published a letter from a “young lady laudanum-drink” to her doctor, which some critics suggest could’ve just as easily been written today.

“You doctors know all the harm those drugs do,” she wrote, “…and yet you do precious little to prevent it.”

America’s love affair with opiates is not new, but perhaps there are lessons to be learned from past mistakes. At the peak of the country’s earlier opioid epidemic, in the 1890’s, medical schools and textbooks warned against over prescribing laudanum and other opioids. One such medical journal took the following stand:

“Doctors who resort too quickly to [opium] are lazy, they’re incompetent, they’re poorly trained, they’re behind the times,” according to






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