Hydrocodone is a prescription opioid narcotic, derived from morphine. The drug is designed and widely prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain. For the most part, drugs containing hydrocodone are not intended for chronic, long-lasting pain; instead, they are meant to treat severe pain that will go away over time, such as pain from a back injury, dental surgery, or similar cause. Since hydrocodone is widely available, however, it often leads to addiction and abuse among those at risk for developing addiction. The number of prescriptions for painkillers, including hydrocodone medications, has climbed 300 percent since 2004.
How Does Hydrocodone Addiction Begin?
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), hydrocodone is not only frequently prescribed, it is also one of the most often abused narcotic drugs available. Many people who receive legitimate prescriptions for hydrocodone medications begin abusing these drugs, and fake versions of hydrocodone medications, with much higher doses of narcotics in them, are widely available for sale illicitly.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that about 2.1 million people in the US struggle with opioid addiction, many forming an addiction because of hydrocodone prescriptions. Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1,000 people enter the hospital every day due to opioid overdoses, and 91 people die because of these drugs on a daily basis.
Like other opioid drugs, hydrocodone can induce a relaxed euphoric high. Symptoms of hydrocodone intoxication include:
- Altered perception of pain
However, hydrocodone, also like other opioids, can change body functions as it releases neurotransmitters. The areas of the brain affected by hydrocodone include opioid receptors, which change how the brain perceives pain; the reward centers, which adjust how serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters are released and absorbed; and areas of the brain involved in breathing. Side effects from taking hydrocodone include:
- Heart rate changes
- Nausea and stomach cramps
- Depressed, slowed, or irregular respiration
- Lack of energy
- Loss of motivation
- Trouble concentrating
- Changes in social behavior, often becoming more reclusive or secretive
- Changes in appearance as they begin to neglect personal hygiene
People who struggle with addiction to prescription painkillers, like hydrocodone, may lie or steal in order to get more of the drug. Because of changing prescription painkiller laws and regulations, including tighter regulations over how often people refill their prescriptions, many people who developed an addiction to hydrocodone are switching to illegal street drugs like heroin because they are easier to find and less expensive. This is an extremely dangerous change in the prescription opioid addiction epidemic and has led to thousands of people experiencing and dying from overdoses.
Long-Term Health Consequences of Hydrocodone Addiction
If a person struggles with opioid addiction for a long time, they can develop chronic health conditions that affect their quality of life. These include:
- Hearing loss
- Liver damage
- Chronic constipation
- Kidney damage from low blood pressure
People who develop an addiction to hydrocodone will also develop a high tolerance for opioid drugs, meaning that other painkillers will not work well for them if they struggle with chronic pain. They may also become physically dependent on these drugs because the brain’s management of neurotransmitters will change, requiring the presence of opioid drugs to maintain normalcy. To avoid serious long-term health problems from opioid addiction, it is important to find medical professionals and a rehabilitation program that can help with a safe detox plan and therapy to overcome substance abuse.
Withdrawing from Hydrocodone
Withdrawing from hydrocodone, like other opioid drugs, is not usually life-threatening; however, because these drugs change the structure of the reward centers in the brain, it is very hard for people who struggle with addiction to these substances to overcome their addiction and dependence alone. People who try to stop taking opioids like hydrocodone without help from a doctor, a therapist, family, and friends will often relapse back into addiction because of the psychological and physical discomfort associated with opioid withdrawal. This can lead to an overdose, as the person takes more than they normally would.
- Muscle aches and joint pain
- Runny nose
- Watering eyes
- Stomach cramps
- Nausea and vomiting
A person withdrawing from hydrocodone abuse will also experience psychological and mood changes. Increased anxiety, panic, cravings for the drug, depression, lethargy, mood swings, and irritability are all associated with hydrocodone addiction. Psychological symptoms are typically harder to overcome than physical symptoms, and without support to keep going, too many people relapse back into substance abuse.
Opioid Overdose Due to Hydrocodone
Although hydrocodone is not as potent as other dangerous opioids like morphine, heroin, and fentanyl, it is still possible to overdose on this drug from taking too much or from mixing it with other substances like alcohol or benzodiazepines. Overdosing on opioid drugs is extremely dangerous and can lead to coma or death. Call 911 to get help for a person overdosing on opioids like hydrocodone; emergency medical treatment is needed to mitigate damage and prevent death.
- Stupor or unconsciousness
- Pinpoint pupils
- Slowed, irregular, or shallow breathing
- No breathing
- Slow heartbeat
- Cold, clammy, or blue-tinted skin
Treatment for Hydrocodone Addiction
The best process for overcoming opioid addiction involves working with a medical professional to safely detox, which may involve a tapered approach using replacement medications like buprenorphine; entering a rehabilitation program that specializes in treating opioid abuse; committing to therapy sessions for at least 90 days, or three months; and getting help through support groups after leaving the rehabilitation program. Also, informing family and friends of this process and getting their emotional support consistently improves outcomes.
Finding the right program may require some legwork. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) maintains a high-quality online treatment finder for a range of mental and behavioral conditions. The group also has a crisis hotline, which people can call if they struggle with addiction, or family and friends can call on their behalf.
Veterans of the Armed Forces can get help using their benefits through the Office of Veterans Affairs (VA). Thousands of veterans across the country struggle with substance abuse, including hydrocodone addiction, so the VA has several veteran-specific treatment programs in many locations.
Many people who struggle with painkiller addiction have low income levels or are older adults. The federal government’s treatment plan finder, offered through the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP), can help people find insurance coverage and resources to support recovery. Those who meet certain criteria may get Medicaid assistance for substance abuse treatment, and older adults may get similar assistance through Medicare programs to reduce addiction among the aging population. Ongoing support should include support groups; Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is one of the largest drug addiction recovery support groups in the world.