Between 1999 and 2017, 218,000 people have died from prescription opioid overdoses, including oxycodone. What’s more, people have succumbed to this type of death at a rate that was five times higher in 2017 than in 1999.
A 2019 analysis found that Americans were more likely to die from an opioid overdose than a car crash. For years, oxycodone medications have been a primary driver of the opioid epidemic, widely considered the worst drug crisis in American history. Opioids, whether they are of the prescription or illicit variety, are highly potent and addictive. Oxycodone is no different.
Learn more about the life-threatening dangers associated with opioid withdrawal and available treatment options.
How Does Oxycodone Work?
Oxycodone, a synthetic medication derived from opium, is prescribed to treat moderate-to-severe pain, and it belongs in a class of medications called opiate analgesics. Oxycodone is also available in combination with acetaminophen and sold under the brand names of OxyContin, Oxycet, Roxicet, and others.
It is also available as a long-acting, extended-release tablet, an extended-release capsule, a liquid solution, a concentrated solution, capsule, and tablet.
Like other opioids, oxycodone works by binding to opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord. Oxycodone stimulates those receptors, which ultimately flood the brain and nervous system with opioids. This action produces pain relief and sedation.
Yet, oxycodone produces a profound level of euphoria due to its ability to trigger the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that governs pleasure. This is what incentivizes people to use oxycodone repeatedly, to the point where dependency and addiction are established.
Oxycodone and the Opioid Epidemic
How oxycodone became one of the most widely abused drugs is often tied to the story of its most notorious product OxyContin. The medication is believed to be the catalyst behind the opioid epidemic’s first wave, which began in the 1990s.
OxyContin was initially approved in 1995 and packaged as an extended-release medication. At the time, Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, marketed the medication on the intent that its extended-release formulation made it difficult to abuse.
Before the advent of OxyContin, opioid medications were prescribed as an end-of-life palliative and was employed to treat acute cancer pain because of “a long-standing, and well-founded, fear about the addictive properties of these drugs,” states a New Yorker article profiling the family behind Purdue Pharma.
“The marketing strategy was to encourage physicians to prescribe OxyContin 70 percent of the time, in hopes of reducing the abuse and dependency rates of the drug,” according to the Pharmacy Times.
Thanks to that campaign, Purdue Pharma was able to convince doctors to change their prescribing habits. People were being prescribed the medication for more common ailments like back and knee pain.
The campaign was an overwhelming success. OxyContin netted Purdue Pharma $35 billion in revenue, which made it a blockbuster drug many times over.
In the process, a multitude of users got hooked and succumbed to opioid overdose.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notified Purdue Pharma about the lack of warning statements about its addictive qualities in 2003. The FDA also issued a black box warning that OxyContin exposed users to “the risk of addiction, overdose, and death.”
Then, in 2007, Purdue Pharma had to pay more than $600 million in fines as part of a guilty plea that the company initially misbranded the drug. Purdue Pharma developed a newer form of the drug that included abuse-deterrent properties, but the research showed that the change made users switch to heroin and other opioids.
In 2019, more legal trouble abounded for Purdue Pharma. The company has been the target of multiple lawsuits, complaints, and protests. Cities and counties in 48 states have filed lawsuits against Purdue Pharma, including California, Hawaii, Maine, and the District of Columbia.
Oxycodone Side Effects
Oxycodone is also capable of producing a number of side effects, from common to severe.
MedlinePlus.gov reports that the following side effects of oxycodone can occur:
- Dry mouth
- Mood changes
- Stomach pain
Serious side effects of oxycodone include:
- Changes in heartbeat
- Hallucinations (seeing things or hearing voices that do not exist)
- Fever, sweating, confusion, fast heartbeat, shivering, severe muscle stiffness
- Twitching, loss of coordination, or diarrheaNausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, weakness, or dizziness
- Chest pain
- Swelling of the face, tongue, throat, eyes, lips, hands, feet, ankles, or lower legs
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing
- Lightheadedness upon changing positions
- Decreased sexual desire
- Irregular menstruation
- Inability to get or keep an erection
What Are the Symptoms of Oxycodone Withdrawal?
Like other opioids, OxyContin withdrawal in and of itself is not life-threatening. If anything, the physical and psychological symptoms are distressing if not debilitating.
Writing for Tonic, one woman described opioid withdrawal as such:
“It feels like the worst flu you ever had, the sickest you’ve ever been, times suicidal thoughts and complete and total confidence that you are never, ever, ever going to feel better. It feels like the day your wife left, and your kitten died, and there were no more rainbows anywhere and never will be again,” she wrote.
According to Healthline, physical oxycodone withdrawal symptoms include:
- Watery eyes
- Shallow breathing
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stomach cramps
- Appetite loss
- Sensitivity to pain
- Dilated pupils
- Racing heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Muscle, joint, and back pain
The psychological symptoms include:
- Memory issues
- Problems concentrating and thinking clearly
- Trouble feeling pleasure
Dangers Of Oxycodone Withdrawal
“Where opioid withdrawal can be fatal is that it can compel users to relapse, where they take a dose so large it triggers an overdose. ”
Withdrawal symptoms occur when a substance leaves the body. This refers to a drug’s half-life; the half-life and length of a substance’s activity in the bloodstream dictate when withdrawal symptoms start. With oxycodone, withdrawal is ultimately determined by the drug’s formulation, whether it is an immediate or extended-release medication.
Thus, the half-life for the immediate-release version of oxycodone is, on average, between three and four hours, states this pharmacological study. The extended-release version has a half-life of about 12 hours. Essentially, this means that the drug will leave the body in about eight hours to 24 hours.
The duration of withdrawal symptoms can vary widely. They typically begin in this window of time and peak within 72 hours. These symptoms can last days, weeks, or even months.
A general oxycodone withdrawal timeline looks like this:
- 8 to 24 hours: Early symptoms of withdrawal begin, causing general physical and mental discomfort.
- 2 to 3 days: Withdrawal symptoms peak during this window and are at their most intense levels. Most of the associated withdrawal symptoms occur during this time.
- 3 to 7 days: Acute withdrawal occurs during this window, but symptoms lessen in three to five days on average.
- A few weeks to months: Protracted withdrawal occurs during this period. It’s when mood swings, sleep disruptions, cravings, and cognitive issues arise. Protracted or long-term withdrawal can endure for weeks or months.
Why Detox Is Necessary
Attempting to go cold turkey by quitting oxycodone on your own can leave you at risk for relapse or worse, overdose and death.
In order to safely and effectively manage oxycodone withdrawal, it is best that you enter a professional treatment program. A reputable treatment program can help you taper off oxycodone and medically alleviate any withdrawal symptoms that arise.
How Professional Treatment Helps
If you or a loved one is in the midst of an opioid addiction where withdrawal is a common occurrence, then professional addiction treatment is vital because it can ultimately be lifesaving.
The first phase of professional treatment is medical detoxification, where a substance is removed from the body, and any withdrawal symptoms are treated. You are supervised 24/7 during this process for your safety and wellbeing. This avoids the risk of relapse and potential overdose from happening.
Because of the profound nature of opioid addiction, it is recommended that you enter into residential treatment after detox. At this stage, you will receive ongoing therapy and care at a treatment facility. You will also have living quarters onsite in order to focus on the primary objective: transformative recovery. Residential treatment is also critical in that it helps you to uncover the underlying causes of your addiction, a process that can be psychologically restorative.
What’s more, a 90-day stay in residential treatment is recommended because it optimizes your chances of a full recovery.
When residential treatment is completed, you can receive ongoing care through an outpatient program. A program of this type allows you the freedom and flexibility to receive therapy while you live at home or some other living arrangement like a sober home.
When treatment is completed, another crucial step in the recovery process is getting connected to a community. This can occur through an alumni program, which offers a supportive community of people who are also in recovery. Groups of this type can provide mentorship and inspiration. They can also serve as a hedge against relapse.