There are several opioids that are prescribed for different purposes and different settings. While they are essential as a pain management medication, they can also be dangerous when used for too long or misused intentionally. Hydrocodone is one example of a fairly potent opioid that’s used as a therapeutic pain relief medication. It’s derived from the naturally occurring opiate codeine, but its strength is similar to morphine. It’s an effective pain relief option, but it comes with many of the same risks that other opioids carry.
Learn more about hydrocodone addiction and how it can be treated effectively.
Hydrocodone is an opioid medication that’s used to treat moderate to severe pain symptoms. It can be used on its own as a pain reliever. However, its most popular form is Vicodin, which is a mixture of hydrocodone and acetaminophen, the active ingredient of Tylenol. As an opioid, hydrocodone can relieve pain symptoms that are associated with surgery, injuries, and diseases. Hydrocodone is also used to treat chronic pain issues for long periods of time. Hydrocodone can come in an extended-release form that can provide pain relief over long periods.
The drug is generally not used to treat pain as needed. In other words, it’s taken for consistent therapeutic use over a specific period of time, not taken at random when pain relief is needed. Hydrocodone can cause some of the euphoric effects that are associated with opioids, and it can be addictive when taken for too long or otherwise misused. Hydrocodone can also cause chemical dependence that can lead to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms after cessation. An opioid use disorder that’s related to hydrocodone addiction may need addiction treatment.
Hydrocodone is an opioid, and it works in the body in a way that’s similar to other opioid pain relievers. Pain is managed by a natural brain chemical called endorphins. Endorphins are very similar to morphine, one of the first opioids that were discovered. Along with morphine, codeine was also discovered as a derivative of the opium poppy plant. Hydrocodone is made from codeine, so it’s considered a semi-synthetic opioid.
Like other opioids, hydrocodone mimics natural endorphins and binds to opioid receptors in the brain and body. When these receptors are activated, they act as inhibitors, which means they slow down functions in the central nervous system. More specifically, they can block pain signals from being sent and received throughout the body, stopping even severe pain in its tracks. In moderate doses, this can relieve pain and create a sense of relaxation. It can also affect the release of another natural chemical in the brain called dopamine, which is associated with pleasure and reward. Opioids can also help to prevent injury-related stress and trauma in patients who have been in accidents.
In higher doses, hydrocodone can cause sedation and euphoria. It can also cause some side effects like drowsiness, nausea, constipation, lightheadedness, and anxiety. It can also cause respiratory depression and loss of consciousness in very high doses.
Hydrocodone addiction is a disease that affects the reward center of the brain. Your reward center is intended to cause you to repeat activities that affect certain feel-good chemicals in the brain, like dopamine and endorphins. Healthy activities like eating and exercise often release those chemicals. Since hydrocodone also affects those chemicals in a potent way, it can cause your reward center to create powerful compulsions to use the drug again. One of the most common signs of hydrocodone addiction is compulsions and cravings to use the drug. Other common signs include:
Hydrocodone can also cause chemical dependence, which is separate from addiction but usually related. Dependence is a chemical reliance on the drug after a period of consistent use. It’s sometimes possible to develop chemical dependency after a period of normal prescribed use, and your doctor will need to work with you to taper you off the medication. Dependence can lead to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit, which may encourage continued drug use.
Signs of chemical dependency include:
Addiction is a chronic disease, but it is treatable with the right therapy services. When you enter an addiction treatment program, you’ll go through an assessment process with a clinician to help determine the right level of care for your needs. If you’re likely to experience severe withdrawal symptoms or if you have high-level medical needs, you may start with medically managed detox. Detox is the highest level of care, and it involves medical treatment to help treat conditions and avoid complications related to withdrawal. Hydrocodone withdrawal isn’t known to be life-threatening, but it can be extremely unpleasant, causing flu-like symptoms.
If you still have high-level medical needs, but you don’t need constant medical treatment, you may move on to an inpatient treatment program with medical or clinical monitoring. This is an ideal level of care for people who are unable to live on their own without jeopardizing their health or sobriety. When you are able to live on your own, you may move on to intensive outpatient treatment, which entails more than nine hours of treatment services each week or outpatient treatment, which entails fewer than nine hours of treatment per week.
When taken as directed, hydrocodone is a relatively safe drug. It may cause some mild symptoms like constipation that need to be managed, but it has very few serious side effects. It may be dangerous if it’s used before driving, as it may cause drowsiness. Hydrocodone becomes more dangerous when it’s misused, taken in high doses, or used with certain other drugs. Long-term use or misuse of hydrocodone can lead to chemical dependence and addiction. Substance use disorders like this can increase your risk of severe opioid use problems or overdose.
The misuse of prescription opioids can lead to the use of illicit substances like heroin. As stated by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, as much as 80 percent of people that use heroin start by misusing a prescription opioid. Opioid addiction can affect multiple aspects of your life, including your health, finances, and relationships. Long-term addiction increases your chances of developing chronic health issues and financial instability.
It also increases your chances of experiencing an overdose. Hydrocodone overdose can slow down vital functions of your nervous system, leading to coma or death. Opioids commonly cause respiratory depression, which slows or stops your breathing to dangerous levels. Mixing opioids with central nervous system depressants like alcohol or benzodiazepines can increase your likelihood of an overdose. Together, the substances potentiate, leading to coma or death.
An opioid overdose can be reversed by naloxone, an opioid antagonist. But only if it’s administered in time. Without treatment, opioid addiction can progress and get worse, but it is a treatable disease.
American Psychiatric Association. (2017, January). What Is Addiction? from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction
ASAM. (n.d.). What is the ASAM Criteria? from https://www.asam.org/resources/the-asam-criteria/about
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, January). Prescription opioid use is a risk factor for heroin use. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/relationship-between-prescription-drug-heroin-abuse/prescription-opioid-use-risk-factor-heroin-use
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Opioids. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids
RxList. (2018, February 6). Benzodiazepines Drug Class: Side Effects, Types & Uses. from https://www.rxlist.com/benzodiazepines/drug-class.htm