Although many classes of drug overdoses have become more widespread in the past several years, one category–opioids–is still at the forefront when it comes to overdose deaths. The crisis that continues to sweep our nation shows no signs of slowing, and we must do all that we can to fight the surge of addiction in our society.
One such drug, hydrocodone, is a commonly prescribed prescription opioid used to manage moderate-to-severe pain. It’s typically prescribed after a surgical procedure or can be used to treat chronic pain. Hydrocodone is the primary ingredient in Norco and Vicodin, which are two drugs that also contain the over-the-counter painkiller called acetaminophen. Although it’s commonly used to manage pain, hydrocodone overdose is a reality. This guide will explore the symptoms, risk factors, and how to prevent them.
What Is Hydrocodone?
Hydrocodone is a potent opioid medication that treats moderate-to-severe pain. It belongs to a group of drugs called narcotic analgesics and affects the central nervous system (CNS) to manage pain. It also is an effective method of controlling or stopping coughs. When used for a prolonged period, the drug can become habit-forming, which leads to mental or physical dependence. However, this is something many people should not be concerned about to keep them from relieving their pain.
Mental dependence or addiction is less likely to occur when hydrocodone is used as prescribed. Still, a physical dependence can cause side effects, such as withdrawal, but this can be prevented by tapering the dose or gradually reducing it over time.
Although it’s a highly effective means of managing pain, it can also be dangerous. Hydrocodone is habit-forming and can cause a person to become tolerant of its effects in a short period. For this reason, individuals might be inclined to take more than their prescribed dose to achieve its euphoric effects, which significantly increases the odds of an overdose. While using hydrocodone, you must tell your doctor if you’re becoming tolerant of its effects so that they can find other methods of managing your pain. The risk of a hydrocodone overdose also increases when you use other central nervous system depressants like alcohol.
There are also many forms of this drug. Other examples of hydrocodone include:
It’s important to know about hydrocodone’s side effects and how it can physically or mentally affect you.
What Are Hydrocodone’s Side Effects?
If you’re prescribed hydrocodone, it’s critical that you never let someone else take your medication since it can cause harm or death to those who take it. Although it’s a well-tolerated medication, it can produce severe side effects. For that reason, the drug must be kept in a safe place so that no one can take it other than the person who’s prescribed it. Hydrocodone is notorious for its ability to slow breathing, especially during the first 24 to 72 hours after your first treatment or if the dose is increased. Your doctor will monitor you closely during this period and will adjust the amount to control the pain and decrease the chances you experience serious breathing issues. Tell your doctor immediately if you have asthma or ever had slow breathing.
You must also tell the prescribing physician if you’ve had lung diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), a brain tumor, a head injury, or any condition that could potentially increase the amount of pressure in your brain. These can all increase the chance of severe hydrocodone side effects. The risk you develop breathing issues is higher if you’re an older adult who is weakened or malnourished by disease. Call your doctor immediately if you experience slowed breathing, shortness of breath, or long pauses between breaths.
Here are the most common side effects caused by hydrocodone use:
- Dry mouth
- Opioid use disorder (OUD)
- Interrupted breathing during sleep, known as sleep apnea
- Mental or mood changes, including agitation, confusion, or hallucinations
- Stomach and abdominal pain
- Inability to urinate
- Adrenal gland issues, such as loss of appetite, weight loss, or unusual tiredness
- Severe drowsiness
- Difficulty waking up
- Pinned pupils
- Swelling of the face, tongue, or throat, which indicates a severe allergic reaction
Severe short-term hydrocodone side effects are less likely to occur when the medication is taken as prescribed by your doctor. However, when misusing or abusing hydrocodone, the side effects become more prevalent. Misusing hydrocodone can also affect your heart, which is incredibly dangerous and must be addressed. Nausea and vomiting are also common, which could precede a loss of appetite that increases physical weakness.
Prolonged use or misuse of hydrocodone can also lead to difficulty achieving erections in men, which can have profound impacts on their sex life. Women might also endure menstruation irregularity as a result of hydrocodone. Overall, most people will experience a lack of sexual desire from opioids.
As mentioned earlier, hydrocodone can also lead to issues with swallowing and breathing, which are incredibly dangerous because of the respiratory dangers caused by this drug. Respiratory depression is most common during an overdose. However, chest pain and lightheadedness can also be severe. In some cases, seizures can occur.
Signs of Hydrocodone Abuse
Hydrocodone overdose is the result of abuse. If you or someone you know is prescribed this medication or using it without a prescription, it’s important to know the signs of abuse as it could lead to an intervention, which results in lifesaving actions. You must pay attention to the following if you believe someone is abusing the drug:
- Changes in their eating or sleeping habits
- Finishing their prescription too early
- Not having any money because they spend it all on hydrocodone
- Unusual or abrupt mood swings that are out of character
- An inability to complete tasks at work, home, or at school
- Quitting hobbies that once brought them joy
- Isolating or changing friend groups
- Stealing medication from others, money, or valuables to support their habit
- Taking more hydrocodone than the doctor prescribed or for longer than prescribed, which can result in fatal overdoses
- Snorting or injecting hydrocodone
- Visiting multiple doctors for prescriptions or going to the urgent care or hospital complaining of pain to get more hydrocodone – this is known as doctor shopping
These are all potential indicators that someone is on the road to addiction or that they could encounter a severe hydrocodone overdose. As was mentioned earlier, opioid overdoses are plaguing the nation. Each year, thousands of people lose their lives as a result of deadly overdoses. Below, we’ll examine the sheer extent of this deadly issue.
Hydrocodone Overdose Death Rates
Although prescription opioid overdose deaths have been overtaken by illicit opioids like heroin and fentanyl, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still occur. Unfortunately, prescription opioids were at the forefront of the current crisis we’re facing, causing the U.S. life expectancy to drop to the lowest point in decades.
In modern society, life expectancy should be increasing with the adoption of technological medical advances, but opioid overdose is preventing that from happening. The death rate from opioid overdoses has increased almost sixfold since 1999, and it caused more deaths in 2017 alone than from HIV or AIDS-related illnesses at the peak of the AIDS epidemic.
The opioid crisis dates back to the 1980s. At this point, the medical community began recognizing pain as a problem that required compassion and adequate treatment. Several states across the country removed the threat of prosecution for doctors who opted to treat patients with opioids, and by 1995 the American Pain Society launched a campaign to view pain as a fifth vital sign. This means it needs to be monitored and treated like high blood pressure. It made sense because chronic pain patients are associated with a much higher suicide risk.
Before the opioid epidemic, drugs like hydrocodone were prescribed for short-term use. Doctors would administer the medication after surgery or for patients with advanced cancer. The belief that opioids were safer than once thought swept the community, and doctors believed that prescribing the medication was treating patients with compassion. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, prescriptions for hydrocodone and oxycodone rose. It wasn’t too much of an issue until OxyContin hit the market; the representatives convinced doctors the medication was safe, leading them to prescribe the drug for minor injuries like a sprained ankle. They even offered doctors incentives, all while emphasizing safety, low addiction potential, and efficacy.
At this stage, prescribing was out of control. Doctors were prescribing large amounts of hydrocodone for routine procedures. It led to a substantial rise in hydrocodone overdose deaths. The disaster it caused will take generations to resolve. Currently, the United States reached a milestone in overdose deaths – the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released figures recently showing that 107,622 people died from drug overdoses last year. The data also shows that opioids were responsible for 80,816 of those deaths. Although fentanyl accounted for the majority, prescription opioids rose as well.
The CDC released research that shows 44 people die each day from overdoses of drugs involving prescription opioids like hydrocodone, translating to 16,000 deaths each year. Prescription opioids were responsible for 25 percent of all opioid overdose deaths in 2020, a 6 percent increase from the year before. Unfortunately, hydrocodone and opioid overdoses will continue to affect our communities for years to come, and knowing what to do in the event of an overdose is vital for survival.
Causes of Hydrocodone Overdose
Hydrocodone abuse is directly linked to overdose, which occurs when too much of a substance is consumed at once. Overdoses can be either accidental or intentional, and they’re the result of someone taking more hydrocodone than medically recommended by the prescribing physician. However, there are cases where individuals are more sensitive to the drug, meaning the low end of hydrocodone can be more toxic for them, despite the particular dose being within range of acceptable medical usage.
When your primary objective of taking hydrocodone is to get high, your doses are within the range of an “overdose amount.” The result is your metabolism is unable to detoxify the medication fast enough to avoid potentially deadly side effects. As was mentioned above, hydrocodone overdoses can be accidental due to overuse. One example of an unintentional overdose is if a child gains access to the drug and takes it. For adults, they could possibly ingest the medication mistakenly or take the wrong dose. However, an overdose that’s on purpose could be due to someone trying to get high or harm themself.
Fortunately, drugs like Narcan mean that overdoses are likely to not result in death. If you seek medical attention immediately, the overdose will be reversed. However, based on the grim statistics listed above, death is not outside the realm of possibility when it comes to hydrocodone abuse. If you’re taking this medication and misusing it, be open to others around you. Communicating that you take this medicine can better prepare them if they find you unconscious. You must always have access to Narcan.
Below, we’ll discuss what a hydrocodone overdose looks like and how to be prepared.
Overdose on Hydrocodone
A hydrocodone overdose can produce devastating effects on your entire body. When an overdose occurs, the effects of the drug reach a therapeutic level seen during regular use. With an overdose, the side effects are far more pronounced, and other effects will occur that don’t happen during normal use. A single dose of hydrocodone can be lethal in a child or someone in an adult that doesn’t weigh much, and some overdoses can worsen the person’s chronic disease. For example, an asthma attack can be triggered by hydrocodone during an overdose.
A hydrocodone overdose is a life-threatening medical emergency that deserves immediate attention and action. If you recognize the symptoms in a person you know is taking hydrocodone or other opioids, you have the potential to save their life. Fortunately, as was mentioned above, hydrocodone overdoses can be reversed with Narcan. You’re witnessing a hydrocodone overdose if someone exhibits the following symptoms:
- Pinpoint pupils
- Weak pulse
- Stomach pain or spasms
- Nausea and vomiting
- Extremely pale or clammy skin
- Decreased level of consciousness
- Severe drowsiness
- Gurgling noises
- Slowed or undetectable pulse
- Purple or blue lips and fingernails
- Shallow breathing
- Inability to breathe
- Limp body
If someone exhibits these symptoms, call 911 immediately. The longer you wait to get help, the lower the chances the individual survives or escapes without permanent damage. The primary cause of hydrocodone overdose death is due to respiratory depression, which causes brain damage or death. One of the first vital signs to monitor is an individual’s breathing.
Hydrocodone Overdose Risk Factors
There are various hydrocodone overdose risk factors to consider. There are unintended consequences of using this medication, such as not telling your doctor about other medicines you’re using, which can lead to a severe drug interaction or a therapeutic dose error. The following are common reasons why you can overdose on the drug:
- Taking high doses of hydrocodone throughout the day.
- Having a history of substance abuse when prescribed the drug, increasing the risk of an overdose.
- Taking an extended-release version of hydrocodone.
- You’ve been sober for a prolonged period but returned to substance use and took the same dose, despite your decreased tolerance.
- You have medical or psychiatric issues, such as liver disease, depression, or HIV.
- You’re an older adult and have a higher sensitivity to the effects of hydrocodone.
- Taking hydrocodone with alcohol, benzodiazepines, or sedatives/hypnotics like Ambien.
- Respiratory conditions like asthma or COPD
- Purchasing illegal hydrocodone, which could contain fentanyl, an opioid 50 times stronger than heroin.
- Using stimulant drugs like meth, cocaine, or MDMA with hydrocodone.
Those who abuse hydrocodone must understand they’re at an increased risk of an overdose when they misuse or abuse this medication. However, it can also occur if taken as prescribed. For that reason, understanding how to prevent an overdose after it’s happened is crucial.
What Actions to Take in a Suspected Hydrocodone Overdose
Understanding the steps and actions to take in the event of a suspected hydrocodone overdose. The first and most important step is to call 911 – the fastest first responders arrive, the sooner the individual will get professional medical attention. The longer you wait, the higher the odds of death becoming a reality. Even if the person doesn’t become a statistic, permanent brain damage is still quite challenging to manage. For that reason, you must seek help immediately and stay with the person until they arrive.
Today, most states require that someone has a Narcan prescription if they’re prescribed opioid medications like hydrocodone. If you believe an overdose is occurring, find their Narcan and follow the instructions. If you’re on the phone with a 911 dispatcher, ask them what to do. They’ll instruct you to administer a dose in their nasal cavity. If it’s ineffective, administer a second dose only after two to three minutes have passed, or first responders have not arrived. Bear in mind Narcan’s effects could take up to five minutes to take hold. Also, the effects are often temporary; the person can slip back into an overdose after the effects subside. Even if the person seems OK, they must go to the hospital for monitoring.
If you’re trained in first aid, use it. Position the individual on their side to ensure the airway is open. You shouldn’t delay other interventions, such as CPR or rescue breathing, as you wait for the Narcan to work. You must continue monitoring their condition until help arrives. If breathing subsides, continue rescue breathing or CPR.
Stay by the person’s side until help arrives. Narcan only temporarily reverses the effects of a hydrocodone overdose, and the person must continue to be monitored. Narcan side effects are not common, but there is always some risk. In some cases, it’ll cause acute opioid withdrawal symptoms, such as convulsions, diarrhea, body aches, increased heart rate, agitation, or vomiting.
How to Prevent a Hydrocodone Overdose
The simplest answer to this question is to not use hydrocodone and seek alternative means of treating your pain. However, if this is not possible, you must always follow your doctor’s instructions. Dosing limits are put in place for your safety. If you’ve reached a point where you’re overdosing on hydrocodone, it could indicate you have a severe opioid use disorder, which requires medical intervention. Fortunately, a life free of opioids is possible with help, and you don’t need to be trapped in addiction any longer or worried that you might lose your life as a result of an overdose.