Hydrocodone is one of the most commonly prescribed medications for treating severe pain. It belongs to the group of medicines called opiate (narcotic) analgesics, and works by acting on the central nervous to alleviate pain. Hydrocodone can be dangerous when overused, and can result in life-threatening symptoms. Drinking alcohol and/or using street drugs while taking hydrocodone can increase the risk of these dangerous side effects.
Hydrocodone Abuse & Addiction
Hydrocodone is classified as an opioid, and prescriptions for hydrocodone are closely monitored due to the potential for abuse and addiction. This prescription drug can be addictive with prolonged use, so it should be taken exactly as prescribed and only for a short amount of time. Ideally, a health care provider should discuss a pain treatment plan with the patient, in order to avoid long-term use that could result in dependency. Those who ingest large amounts of alcohol, take street drugs, or who have struggled with depression or another mental illness run a greater risk of abusing hydrocodone.
What Is Hydrocodone?
Hydrocodone is a generic version of an opioid pain reliever that is found in many commonly prescribed brand-name drugs, such as Vicodin, Norco, and Zohydro. Hydrocodone can also be found in brand-name drugs such as:
An overdose can occur with any of these medications. An opioid overdose occurs when someone takes a dose of the drug that causes their breathing to slow to the point of lost consciousness. In some cases, overdoses can be fatal.
Signs & Symptoms of Hydrocodone Abuse
Because many people obtain prescriptions for hydrocodone to combat authentic pain, it can be difficult to spot the signs of abuse and addiction. At times, it can even be a challenge for the person using the medication to notice the warning signs of their hydrocodone abuse.
Typically, hydrocodone abuse begins with someone taking higher doses than their prescription allows, or taking it more often than directed. This increased use can be an imperceptible red flag, as the person using hydrocodone may feel that their pain isn’t being relieved the way it once was, so they may increase the dosage to enhance the effectiveness. Increasing a dosage without speaking to a health care provider is one of the first signs of hydrocodone abuse, and also a warning sign that tolerance or physical dependence is being built.
Additional signs of hydrocodone abuse can include the following:
- Intentionally ingesting the medication in ways other than its intended manner, such as snorting or putting the drug under their tongue to intensify the effects
- Social withdrawal
- Doctor shopping, or visiting various medical clinics in order to obtain new prescriptions
- Exaggeration of symptoms in order to get pills
- Preoccupation with obtaining more medication
- Stealing Medication
The Dangers of Hydrocodone Abuse & Addiction
Although prescribing doctors are required to warn patients of the capacity for hydrocodone abuse, many patients believe that they will not fall into that trap. Some may think they are immune to addiction, because they have not previously experienced substance abuse disorders of any kind. However, hydrocodone abuse and addiction can occur quickly and with very little warning. The therapeutic uses of hydrocodone also make it challenging, because it can be difficult to detect the early warning signs of abuse in someone with a current prescription.
When a person ingests hydrocodone, or any opioid medication, the brain’s response to pain is altered, because hydrocodone travels to the brain and binds to opioid receptors. Additionally, opioids slow the function of the central nervous system, which can result in the following effects:
- feeling of euphoria
- slowed breathing
- slowed heart rate
Hydrocodone can be addictive due to the sense of well-being that it produces. The human brain is wired to seek out pleasurable stimuli, and the brain’s reward pathways are activated when something pleasurable occurs. Since addiction is a chronic disease of the brain, this is how addiction takes place with certain pain medications. When someone is taking hydrocodone as prescribed, it can be even trickier to realize that a habit has formed and that their use has become compulsive.
When someone ingests hydrocodone exactly as prescribed, and for a short amount of time, it lessens the chance that their use will become compulsive – but the risk still remains. This is the bewildering part of the opioid epidemic; people are taking medicine they need to relieve their pain, but it puts them in a vulnerable position to develop a habit.
Other Types of Opioid Abuse
Another type of opioid abuse, including the use of hydrocodone, is when the drug is being taken recreationally. Someone using prescription medications solely for a feeling of euphoria (“getting high”) could be at high risk for addiction. If other substances like alcohol, street drugs, or other opioids are being used in combination with hydrocodone, the risk of overdose is increased.
Hydrocodone abuse can also occur without the psychological addiction taking place. When someone develops a physical dependence to the drug, the body builds a tolerance to hydrocodone and becomes dependent on its presence. If a physically dependent person stops using the drug all at once (“cold turkey”), they may experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. To combat withdrawal, health care providers will often advise patients to taper down their dosage of hydrocodone over time.
Hydrocodone Withdrawal & Detox
When someone’s body is dependent on hydrocodone, and they attempt to stop using suddenly, they may experience withdrawal symptoms. Due to the addictive nature of hydrocodone, this can occur even if someone follows their health care provider’s instructions and takes the medication exactly as prescribed.
The symptoms of hydrocodone withdrawal can include the following:
- Anxiety and/or depression
- Teary eyes, runny nose
- Sweating, chills
- Muscle and/or joint pain
- Stomach cramps
- Difficulty sleeping
- Gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea
- Increased heart rate
The onset of hydrocodone withdrawal symptoms can occur as soon as a few hours after the last use, and could last as long as seven days. Because withdrawal symptoms can be both physically and mentally agonizing, many people have trouble stopping their hydrocodone use on their own. Notably, there are medication options and other interventions that can assist in making withdrawal more tolerable.
Treatment Options For Hydrocodone Addiction
Realizing that someone you love may be struggling with hydrocodone abuse or addiction can feel daunting and scary. Fortunately, there are treatment options available to those that are suffering. Additionally, people struggling with opioid use disorder can choose from treatment options that offer both inpatient and outpatient programs that can include the following:
- Medically-supervised detox program
- Individual therapies
- Group therapies
- Development of coping mechanisms in order to avoid relapse
- Mindfulness therapy
- 12-Step treatment
- Family support
- Aftercare planning, which provides the person with the best chances for effective, long-term recovery
Although hydrocodone addiction is a chronic disease, it can be dealt with through appropriate treatment avenues. If you are concerned about a loved one who is struggling with hydrocodone abuse or other opioid addiction, we encourage you to contact us. We are here to answer any questions you may have, and assist you in understanding the recovery options available to you or your loved one.
Medline Plus – Hydrocodone
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