Hydrocodone is a semisynthetic opioid best known for its use in painkillers like Vicodin. It was synthesized from codeine and is now commonly prescribed for moderate to severe pain and sometimes as a cough suppressant. It’s often mixed with acetaminophen to produce greater pain relief, but this practice has been criticized for causing potential damage to the liver.
Like all opioids, hydrocodone is highly addictive and can produce withdrawal symptoms if taken for an extended period of time. Professional treatment is often needed to have success in overcoming an addiction disorder involving this substance.
What are the signs of hydrocodone addiction?
Addiction to hydrocodone tends to happen in one of two ways. People may become addicted to it after taking a medication containing the substance for pain issues, or they may abuse a drug like Vicodin without a prescription by obtaining it from friends or family members or purchasing it on the black market.
If a person is taking hydrocodone legally, then it’s best to look for certain behavioral signs of addiction. These can include:
- Hoarding the medication
- Seeing multiple doctors to get more prescriptions for the drug
- Exaggerating symptoms to obtain the drug
- Continuing to take the drug in spite of adverse side effects or financial difficulties
- Constant preoccupation with the drug
- Avoiding situations in which the drug is unlikely to be available
- Neglecting life responsibilities
- Inability or refusal to quit
If you’re not sure if someone is abusing hydrocodone, there are common physical and emotional symptoms to look out for, including:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Abnormal mood changes
- Constricted pupils
- Trouble urinating
- Difficulty concentrating
- Dry throat
What is hydrocodone withdrawal like?
After abusing hydrocodone or even taking it as directed for a long period of time, people are likely to develop a tolerance to the drug, causing them to require higher doses to get the same effect. This tolerance leads to dependence, resulting in withdrawal symptoms if the substance leaves the system.
Opioid withdrawal is often described as an incredibly intense flu. Symptoms include:
- Sweating and chills
- Nausea and vomiting
- Anxiety or depression
- Joint and muscle pain
- Stomach cramps
Along with this, people enduring withdrawal will experience intense cravings for the drug. These symptoms tend to last for around a week after the last dose has been taken.
Prescription Drug Categories
What treatment options work best for hydrocodone addiction?
For opioid addiction, a combination of medication and therapy is often the best option for treatment. Medications like methadone and buprenorphine have been developed to directly treat physical addiction to drugs like hydrocodone by replacing a potent opioid with one that does not produce a noticeable high in individuals with a high tolerance to these substance. One 2008 study found that treating opioid addiction with buprenorphine resulted in a 70 percent retention rate in the treatment program of addicted youths compared to 20.5 percent in the group not treated with medication.
As opioids themselves, they activate the same part of the brain as hydrocodone, reducing or preventing cravings and withdrawal symptoms. After being switched onto one of these medications, an addicted person can then be weaned from the new drug.
This process is helpful, but it’s not perfect. It’s highly recommended for those addicted to opioids to combine this treatment with standard rehabilitation programs, support groups, and/or addiction therapy. While medication addresses the physical aspect of addiction, it doesn’t address the psychological issues that led to addiction. These must be dealt with in order to sustain recovery. A well-rounded approach tends to be the most effective at reducing the risk of future relapse.
Frequently Asked Questions
Hydrocodone is an opioid pain medication synthesized from morphine and prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain from injury, surgery, or illness. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lists it as a Schedule II medication, a change that was made in 2014 after the drug was linked to the opioid addiction and overdose epidemic plaguing the United States. The DEA notes that, since 2009, hydrocodone drugs make up the second most frequently found drug category admitted as evidence of illicit substance abuse activity, as reported by the National Forensic Laboratory Information System (NFLIS).
How addictive is the drug?
Hydrocodone is very habit-forming, so it can become addictive for many people. Even when a person takes this medication as prescribed, it can be difficult to stop taking the prescription suddenly when it is no longer needed to treat pain. Instead, many prescribers work with their patients to taper use of the medication over time, so the body does not experience withdrawal symptoms or cravings. However, many people still struggle with addiction and substance abuse related to hydrocodone.
What are the street names for this drug?
Hydrocodone has numerous brand names, including Vicodin, Lortab, Zohydro, Norco, and Vicoprofen. With so many variants available for prescription, the drug is widely diverted onto the black market. Street names for hydrocodone drugs are typically a variant of the brand names, including:
What are the health risks of use?
When a person struggles with addiction or substance abuse involving hydrocodone, they can suffer many side effects, including tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal symptoms. They are also at a high risk of overdosing on the drug.
Even used as prescribed, people who have some preexisting conditions should not take hydrocodone or should be careful about their hydrocodone prescription. Breathing problems including asthma, kidney or liver disease or damage, brain or head injury, digestive or bowel problems, or bowel obstruction are problems that can become exacerbated with a hydrocodone prescription. Women who are pregnant should talk to their doctor before taking hydrocodone, and people who have had previous problems with drug or alcohol abuse should also speak with their doctor about risks before taking hydrocodone as prescribed.
What are the side effects of use?
Because hydrocodone is a potent narcotic painkiller, a person who uses the drug as prescribed can still experience side effects; however, side effects are more likely to become a problem when a person abuses the drug or takes large doses for nonmedical reasons.
Side effects include:
- Dry mouth
- Constipation, nausea, vomiting, or other digestive issues
- Swelling in hands and feet due to fluid retention
- Back pain
- Muscle or joint pain
- Exhaustion or fatigue
- Mood changes
What is the risk of overdose?
It is unlikely that a person taking hydrocodone medications as prescribed will suffer an overdose; it is more likely if a person abuses hydrocodone for nonmedical purposes. Overdose symptoms include:
- Very low blood pressure
- Slow or irregular pulse
- Decreased awareness or response
- Falling unconscious or not able to wake up
- Reduced or shallow breathing
- Bluish tint around fingertips or lips
- Clammy or cold skin
Narcotics like hydrocodone suppress breathing, so when a person takes too much, they are most likely to stop breathing or fail to breathe in enough oxygen. This can lead to organ shutdown, brain damage, coma, and death.
What are the dangers of mixing this drug with others?
There are several dangers of mixing hydrocodone with other substances. The medication is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, so it causes relaxation, loss of physical coordination, euphoria, depressed breathing, low blood pressure, and slower heart rate. When mixed with other CNS depressants, including other narcotics, benzodiazepines, and alcohol, the risk of overdose increases; when mixed with other, non-narcotic drugs, the overdose-reversing drug naloxone is less able to work, so overdoses are much more dangerous.
Additionally, many hydrocodone medications like Vicodin also have acetaminophen, an over-the-counter painkiller and fever reducer. When mixed with other cold, flu, or OTC pain medications, the acetaminophen can lead to overdose and liver damage.
What relapse prevention techniques exist?
Relapse prevention techniques to overcome hydrocodone addiction and abuse include medically supervised detox, rehabilitation programs, and support groups. There are also maintenance medications like buprenorphine and naltrexone. A physician or therapist will help the person taper their ingestion of hydrocodone or the maintenance medication to ease the body off dependence on the drug; safely tapering is the best way to end the body’s dependence on hydrocodone.
Entering a rehabilitation program will help the person learn coping mechanisms to deal with cravings or stress that might otherwise lead to relapse. Therapy during rehabilitation helps clients understand what led to and then fueled their addiction. After they leave rehab, ongoing social support via support groups, both online and in person, can help to maintain long-term sobriety.