Today, prescription painkillers are a well-known threat to public health and safety. A contributing factor to the painkiller epidemic is a public perception that these drugs are safer than street drugs because they are manufactured by regulated pharmaceutical companies and prescribed by doctors – but this is not the case. Prescription painkiller abuse arises either when a prescribed user takes too much of the medication, or a non-prescribed user consumes it for its pleasurable effects.
Hydrocodone is a prescription painkiller used for the treatment of mild to moderate pain; it is also used as a cough suppressant. This drug belongs to the opioid family, which includes drugs also called “narcotic analgesics,” and works by binding to opiate receptors in the brain involved in receiving pain messages. Hydrocodone can block pain as well as administer pleasurable effects.
To treat pain, hydrocodone is often combined with acetaminophen and distributed under the following brand names:
Hydrocodone is addiction-forming, which means that with continued use, it will cause physical and mental dependence. When physically dependent on a drug, the body builds a tolerance that translates into the user needing to consume more of the drug to achieve the familiar, desired effects. An individual can be physically dependent on hydrocodone without forming a mental dependence, which includes seeking out this narcotic and using (often limited) resources to buy it, knowing the dangerous side effects. Mental dependence is more likely to develop in illicit users.
Risks of Hydrocodone Abuse
Signs of hydrocodone addiction often include a lowered quality of life, as the addict makes the drug a greater priority than personal, work and family obligations. Physical symptoms of hydrocodone abuse include:
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Fear, depression and confusion
- Blurred vision
- Ear ringing
One of the hallmarks of physical addiction is that withdrawal symptoms will begin when use is discontinued or the commonly used dose is reduced.Withdrawal symptoms of hydrocodone can include:
- Anxiety or irritability
- Muscle aches
- Problems with sleep
- Trouble sleeping
It is important for illicit users, who are without the medical advice necessary to safely take this drug and to understand that it is possible to overdose on hydrocodone. Altering the composition of hydrocodone, such as crushing the pill to snort or inject it, or chewing a tablet, increases the risk of overdose, as does consuming it with alcohol.
Hydrocodone overdose symptoms can include:
- Shallow or slow breathing
- Extreme fatigue or drowsiness
- Small pupils
In the event of an overdose, an emergency response will be necessary in most cases. Emergency treatment in this case will likely include oxygen being administered to improve breathing and to avoid any permanent brain damage. In the most extreme cases, medical professionals may administer naloxone (brand name Narcan) which is an opioid antidote. In some states, opioid users and individuals who are exposed to opioid users, may have a prescription to possess naloxone in their home or on their person. Naloxone may have unpleasant side effects, but it is a non-addiction-forming and proven to be effective.
Treatment for Abuse Issues
Hydrocodone addiction is treatable whether it occurs on its own, in combination with abuse of other drugs, or with a co-occurring mental health disorder. In general, treatment for drug abuse includes detoxification and an abstinence maintenance program (which may be assisted with medications), as well as an aftercare program (such as continued attendance at group recovery meetings). As part of a maintenance program, recovering addicts receive individual and group counseling that is aimed at identifying the underlying causes of addiction, raising awareness of drug-related coping strategies, and building new pathways to drug-free living.
Since hydrocodone is an opioid, it is generally responsive to treatment approaches used for the entire class of narcotic analgesics. For instance, in some cases, the drug Suboxone may be helpful in hydrocodone detox. The two active ingredients in Suboxone are buprenorphine and naloxone. As a partial opioid agonist, buprenorphine has the following advantages compared to other opioid medications:
- Creates less pleasurable effects and physical dependence
- Comparatively mild withdrawal symptoms
- An overall lower potential for abuse
An advantage of medication-assisted detox and abstinence maintenance, where advisable and available, is that it may make for a more comfortable rehab experience, which in turn can help keep a substance abuser in treatment. Buprenorphine may be administered in a doctor’s office or by prescription for at-home use. In view of the diminished likelihood of addiction, using buprenorphine to transition from opioid dependence to sobriety may be beneficial for some recovering opioid abusers. Whatever method of detox is chosen, it should always be done under the supervision of consulting physicians to ensure its safety.
If you’re ready to stop abusing hydrocodone and get on the path to a healthier life, call us today. We can connect you to a comprehensive treatment program that is right for your individual situation.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton