Hydrocodone is a potent opioid painkiller, and while it can be prescribed on its own, it is usually used in combination with acetaminophen in the form of Vicodin, which is one of the commonly prescribed opioids in the United States.
Even as the opioid crisis continues to grip the country, many people still hold the false impression that if a drug is prescribed to them by a doctor, that means it’s safe to misuse and even abuse, and they cannot get addicted.
But it doesn’t have to be heroin for someone to get hooked on it, and hydrocodone can prove addictive even in small amounts, with a high risk for overdose and potentially serious health consequences as well.
How Does Hydrocodone Work?
Hydrocodone, like most opioids, enters the brain and binds with what are known as opioid receptors, mimicking the opioids that our bodies produce naturally to flood the brain and central nervous system with excess opioids.
Natural opioids are neurotransmitters that inhibit, or slow down, nerve signals in the central nervous system that send feelings of pain and stress to the brain. This is how the body naturally regulates pain.
When hydrocodone activates the brain’s opioid receptors, it stimulates them into overproduction, slowing down activity in the central nervous system to a much more significant degree, as well as creating stronger plain blocks around the spinal cord and brainstem for more effective pain relief. It also creates strong feelings of sedation and relaxation, as well as a major boost of a different neurotransmitter called dopamine.
Dopamine is connected to what is commonly referred to as the “pleasure center” of the brain and controls things like cognition, emotion, and how we process feelings of reward and pleasure.
Hydrocodone’s effect on the brain’s dopamine levels is what creates the “high” feeling of euphoria, and it is also what puts into motion the beginnings of dependence and eventually addiction, as the brain becomes rewired to associate taking hydrocodone as an activity that gets rewarded with dopamine.
What are the Signs of Hydrocodone Addiction?
Spotting someone engaging in hydrocodone abuse that is in danger of progressing to addiction might sound like it should be fairly easy. However, being able to correctly identify the signs of not only hydrocodone abuse but also substance abuse, in general, can be difficult.
While perhaps obvious in hindsight when everything can be put together, individual signs of hydrocodone abuse will often go unnoticed, especially if you are not actively looking for them, and if the individual in question has a prescription for the drug. LEARN MORE – OPIOIDS
Still, when someone regularly abuses hydrocodone, certain side effects can serve as clues to a growing hydrocodone dependence. Some common physical and mental effects of long-term hydrocodone abuse include:
- Chronic constipation
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Frequent drowsiness
- Mood swings
- Difficulty urinating
Similarly, the transition from hydrocodone abuse to addiction can be subtle to the point where even the person who is becoming more and more dependent on hydrocodone may not recognize that it is happening until the consequences of their addiction have become too significant to miss.
The major characteristic that separates substance abuse from full-blown addiction is that when someone is addicted to hydrocodone, they are unable to control any aspect of their abuse. Their compulsive use of hydrocodone becomes the top priority in their life, pushing out everything from work, school, and relationships with family and friends.
As obtaining and using hydrocodone becomes the main focus of someone’s life and the motivation behind their actions and decisions, they will start exhibiting increasingly abnormal behaviors that are consistent with hydrocodone addiction as well as substance use disorders in general. Some behavioral signs of hydrocodone addiction include:
- Taking hydrocodone in unprescribed ways/doses
- Forging a prescription or “doctor shopping”
- Using hydrocodone without a prescription
- Increased tolerance
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms
- Missing money or valuables
- A noticeable decline in personal hygiene
- Becoming socially withdrawn/isolated
- Lying about or hiding hydrocodone use
- Feeling unable to function normally
- Inability to stop using hydrocodone
If you are experiencing these behaviors or have recognized them in a family member or friend’s actions, do not wait to get help and seek out professional addiction services. Taking action as soon as possible can help prevent any more damage from being done; it also can prevent a potentially fatal overdose.
What is Involved in Hydrocodone Addiction Treatment?
Hydrocodone addiction treatment should start with a supervised medical detox to flush all traces of hydrocodone from the body and get recovering users physically and mentally stabilized. The symptoms of hydrocodone withdrawal are, like most opioids, not considered nearly as potentially dangerous or life-threatening as other substances, like benzodiazepines.
However, hydrocodone detox should still never be attempted alone without medical intervention, which helps to avoid a mid-detox relapse or any potential health complications. Doctors can also use medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to slowly taper down someone’s hydrocodone usage, substituting weaker opioids like methadone or buprenorphine and then tapering that down as well.
After detox has been completed and the withdrawal symptoms have passed, the next step in hydrocodone addiction treatment is to enroll in an addiction recovery program that offers ongoing care. Detox alone is not enough to successfully quit hydrocodone. It must be followed up by either an inpatient or outpatient treatment program that can address the psychological aspects of a person’s addiction and give them the proper tools and coping skills to address and manage their addictive behaviors. If an individual skips ongoing treatment, then relapse is all but guaranteed.
How Dangerous is Hydrocodone?
Because it is a prescription medication, people may think it is safer to abuse hydrocodone rather than illicit opioids like heroin. But the fact is that hydrocodone is plenty dangerous, even if someone is taking it as prescribed, as even infrequent use can sometimes be enough for someone to become dependent on it.
Opioids like hydrocodone are also frequently mixed with alcohol, which not only increases the risk of an overdose but also can do much more damage to the kidneys and liver than just one or the other on its own.
The symptoms of hydrocodone overdose include:
- Dangerously slow/shallow breathing
- Clammy skin
- Inability to maintain consciousness
- Bluish skin around nails and lips
- Low blood pressure
If someone is exhibiting these symptoms, then they need immediate emergency medical attention to avoid a fatal overdose as well as potentially permanent damage to the brain and vital organs due to lack of oxygen.
Hydrocodone Abuse Statistics
- Hydrocodone is the main component of Vicodin which, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), is the most prescribed painkiller in America.
- Almost half of all opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2016 involved prescription painkillers like hydrocodone.
- According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), oxycodone and hydrocodone account for about 67% of all prescription opioids diverted for illicit use.