Hydrocodone is a Schedule II controlled substance, which means it is very addictive. While it can be safely used as a prescription painkiller, it has a high potential for abuse.
This drug is intended for short-term pain-relief and has limited effectiveness when used for chronic conditions. The risk that someone will become addicted to hydrocodone or experience adverse health effects increases the longer they abuse it.
What Is Hydrocodone?
Hydrocodone is an opioid pain reliever used for moderate to severe pain. It is usually mixed with acetaminophen (Tylenol), an analgesic drug. Common hydrocodone brand names include Vicodin, Norco, and Lortab.
Like all opioids, hydrocodone alters the mind’s perception of pain. It attaches to opioid receptors in the brain and nervous system.
It also increases the amount of dopamine that is present in the brain. Dopamine is part of the brain’s reward system that makes a person feel good.
The result of hydrocodone use is decreased pain, relaxed breathing, and a pleasant mental state (euphoria).
How Is Hydrocodone Abused?
Many people who receive hydrocodone as a prescription end up abusing it, taking a higher dose than their doctor prescribed. They may also take more frequent doses or continue taking the drug after their doctor recommends that they stop.
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If someone is unaware of how addictive hydrocodone is, they may be more likely to abuse it. Doctors often require patients to sign a paper that informs them of the dangers of opioids before they receive a prescription.
Hydrocodone comes as a pill that should be swallowed. A lot of individuals abuse it this way because it seems less dangerous to take it as intended, even if they are taking too much.
Other ways that people abuse hydrocodone may be:
- dissolving the drug in water and injecting it
- crushing the pills and snorting the powder (insufflation)
- heating powdered hydrocodone on tin foil and inhaling the vapors (“smoking”)
Taking hydrocodone by injection, insufflation, or inhalation causes it to have a faster and more intense effect. These methods take the drug straight into the bloodstream rather than allowing it to pass through the digestive system.
Since hydrocodone is made to enter the body more slowly (extended release), taking it in ways other than intended can lead to overdose.
Hydrocodone Abuse And Health
Long-term hydrocodone abuse has been linked to constipation, hearing loss, and infertility.
Over time, opioids can cause someone to experience worse pain. The body and mind become weaker at regulating pain on their own as they depend on drugs like hydrocodone. This can also lead to a decreased ability to handle stress.
Abusing hydrocodone by injecting, snorting, or smoking can cause additional health problems.
Injection drug use may lead to bacterial infections and collapsed veins as well as disease transmission from shared needles. Snorting hydrocodone damages the nose, causing nosebleeds and tissue erosion. Smoking the drug is harmful to the lungs.
Can You Overdose On Hydrocodone?
A person can overdose on hydrocodone by taking too much of it at once or taking it too often. Taking more hydrocodone before the body has processed and excreted the last dose can cause it to build up to toxic levels.
Mixing hydrocodone with other central nervous system depressants (alcohol, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, or other opioids) can be deadly. Taking these drugs together compounds their effects, which can cause someone to stop breathing or lose consciousness.
Naloxone (Narcan) is an opioid overdose-reversal agent available over-the-counter at many pharmacies across the country. It is meant to stop overdose symptoms long enough for medical help to arrive.
Hydrocodone overdose symptoms include:
- dangerously slow breathing
- irregular or slow heart rate
- bluish fingernails or lips
- cold, clammy skin
- heavy sedation
- loss of consciousness
- coma or death
Combining hydrocodone with stimulant drugs like cocaine or Adderall (amphetamine) is dangerous, too.
Stimulants have a somewhat opposing effect to opioids. Taking the two together can make a person feel less intoxicated, which raises the chance of overdose.
Buying hydrocodone on the street also increases overdose risk. In 2016, 40 people in California overdosed on fake Norco pills, and 12 of them died. While these pills looked like hydrocodone, they contained fentanyl, a powerful opioid drug. Fentanyl continues to be a threat today.
Side Effects Of Hydrocodone Abuse
Hydrocodone abuse increases the chance that someone will experience adverse side effects. Severe side effects include hallucinations, difficulty breathing, and changes in heart rate.
Other side effects of hydrocodone abuse may be:
- dry mouth
- stomach or back pain
- painful urination
- swelling of face, throat, legs, or feet
- chest pain
- decreased sex drive
A person may develop a tolerance to hydrocodone even with prescribed use. As tolerance grows, the body does not respond as well to the same dosage of hydrocodone that worked before.
As a result, some people increase the dosage or frequency that they take the drug. This can cause the body to rely too much on hydrocodone and become physically dependent on it (need the drug to function). Physical dependence and addiction often go hand-in-hand.
Signs Of Hydrocodone Addiction
Addiction is a disease that changes brain structure so that the mind craves the drug. Hydrocodone becomes a priority, often coming before essentials like hygiene, nutrition, and overall health.
A person suffering from hydrocodone addiction has little control over their drug use. They may spend all of their time and money seeking the drug or under its influence. They may try to cut back or stop taking it, but they are unlikely to be successful on their own.
Other signs of hydrocodone addiction include:
- secretive behavior
- a state of sedation
- high tolerance for hydrocodone
- taking more than the doctor recommends
- depending on the drug to get through the day
- stealing money to buy hydrocodone
- job loss or poor work performance
- difficulty maintaining relationships
- less interest in social activities or things they used to enjoy
- paraphernalia (straws for snorting or syringes)
- hydrocodone withdrawal symptoms
People who abuse hydrocodone have to get more of the drug from a source other than their primary care physician. They might visit multiple doctors to obtain more than one prescription, though this is increasingly difficult due to prescription drug monitoring programs.
Some people turn to heroin as a cheaper and more available opioid. They may also get hydrocodone from a friend, on the street, or online without a prescription.
Hydrocodone Withdrawal Symptoms
If someone is physically dependent on hydrocodone and they stop taking it or reduce their intake, they are likely to have withdrawal symptoms. The body needs time to adjust to being without the drug, so it reacts adversely when hydrocodone is not present.
Symptoms of hydrocodone withdrawal may be:
- sweating or chills
- muscle, back, or joint pain
- loss of appetite
- stomach cramps
- nausea and vomiting
- anxiety or irritability
Withdrawing from hydrocodone can also cause someone’s breathing and heart rate to speed up. Because hydrocodone withdrawal is dangerous and unpleasant, many people continue taking the drug to avoid these symptoms.
Medical Detox For Hydrocodone Addiction
Hydrocodone withdrawal can be dangerous. It is not safe for someone to detox alone. A medically supervised detox program provides constant monitoring and support through this difficult process.
Medical detox offers an inpatient environment in which the individual is kept stabilized as they go through hydrocodone withdrawal. This may require tapering off the drug and administering other medications that reduce withdrawal symptoms.
Hydrocodone Addiction Treatment Options
At Vertava Health of Massachusetts, we offer a variety of evidence-based methods for hydrocodone addiction treatment.
The goal is to help people undo the negative effects that addiction has on their life and prepare them to resist relapse. Our holistic approach involves exercise, healthy eating, stress management, and behavioral therapy.
Care for opioid addiction may also include medication-assisted treatment. This combines therapy and counseling with a medication such as buprenorphine (Suboxone) that reduces cravings so a person can focus on healing.
Each person at Vertava Health of Massachusetts receives a treatment plan created just for them. They work closely with a therapist to resolve thinking and behavior issues that lead to substance abuse.
There is no one thing that causes addiction, so there is no single cure. Each person has a different journey to recovery, and we are here to help you find your way.
- Science Daily — Street ‘Norco’ looks like the real thing but it really, really isn’t
- Mayo Clinic — Hydrocodone
- UC Davies School of Medicine — Implications of sensorineural hearing loss with hydrocodone/acetaminophen abuse
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: PubChem — Hydrocodone