Hydrocodone is a synthetic opioid prescribed to treat severe pain. People take it to address the kind of pain that comes from cancer and certain surgical procedures. It has also gained notoriety as one of the substances responsible for the relentless opioid epidemic that claims an estimated 130 lives a day.
It has the distinction of being one of the most frequently prescribed and abused opioid medications. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that 21-to-29 percent of people who are prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them.
In addition to being powerfully addictive, hydrocodone is capable of producing a multitude of short- and long-term effects. Read on to find out more about this controversial opioid medication.
How Does Hydrocodone Work?
German scientists synthesized hydrocodone in 1920, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved it for use in 1943. Hydrocodone is often prescribed in combination with acetaminophen and sold under brand names like Vicodin, Norco, and Lortab.
Hydrocodone is also an antitussive medication like codeine, which means it is a cough suppressant. However, it is commonly prescribed to relieve severe pain.
The hydrocodone/acetaminophen medication is the most prescribed hydrocodone product in the United States and is available as a tablet, solution, and elixir. Hydrocodone by itself is prescribed in long-acting, extended-release capsules and tablets.
Hydrocodone works like other opioids by binding to receptors in the brain and spinal cord areas to block pain signals. Like other opioids, hydrocodone stimulates the areas of the brain that govern emotion, further diminishing pain perception. Hydrocodone also acts on the brain’s reward center to release dopamine, which induces feelings of euphoria.
Hydrocodone is designated as a Schedule II drug by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which means it has a high potential for abuse and could lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.
When that dependence blooms into addiction, it can produce a host of negative effects.
The Effects of Hydrocodone
Hydrocodone is powerfully addictive. People who take it can develop dependency addiction rather quickly. Hydrocodone produces side effects when it is taken as prescribed. However, these effects are likelier to occur when it is abused — that is, when someone takes a larger than recommended dose or takes it longer than what is prescribed.
Common side effects from hydrocodone include:
- Stomach pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Swelling in the feet, legs, or ankles
- Uncontrollable shaking in part of the body
- Changes in appetite, especially a lower appetite
- Dry mouth
- Tiredness or fatigue
- Difficult, frequent, or painful urination
- Tinnitus or ringing in the ears
- Back pain
- Muscle tension or tightening
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
When someone abuses hydrocodone, it can result in them experiencing other symptoms such as:
- Blurry vision
- Fear or paranoia
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
The life-threatening effects from opioids occur when someone becomes dependent, meaning their body becomes so used to opioids that, without them, they experience bodily disturbances. Because so many people continue to use opioids like hydrocodone for the effects and to avoid symptoms of withdrawal, they develop addictions.
They will display compulsive behaviors in seeking out hydrocodone and will use despite adverse consequences, whether they are health-related or legal. These are surefire signs of addiction.
When hydrocodone is abused on a long-term basis, users can experience the following complications:
- Breathing problems
- Organ damage from oxygen deprivation
- Slower heart rate
What’s more, addiction to opioids like hydrocodone can be deadly in overdose. The major life-threatening effect is respiratory depression.
Hydrocodone overdose symptoms include:
- Muscle weakness
- Cold, clammy skin
- Narrowed or widened pupils
- Slowed breathing
- Slowed heartbeat
What makes opioids so addictive and ultimately deadly are the withdrawal symptoms. To users, it feels like having the flu or worse. The symptoms themselves are enough to cause them to relapse to such a degree that they can succumb to overdose (more on this later).
One user wrote this about opioid withdrawal:
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.
Two phases of withdrawal occur with opioids like hydrocodone. During the first phase, a user can experience symptoms such as:
- Mood swings
- Watery eyes
- Excessive yawning
- Muscle aches
- Excessive sweating
Two or three days after the first phase, symptoms can intensify and include:
- Appetite loss
- Abdominal cramps
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dilated pupils
- Shallow, fast breathing
- Rapid heartbeat
How Professional Addiction Treatment Can Help
If you or a loved one has an addiction to hydrocodone or some other opioid, professional addiction treatment is essential for this reason: It can help you reclaim sobriety, which can ultimately save your life.
Professional treatment for opioid addiction typically begins with medical detoxification via medication-assisted treatment (MAT), a process in which you are weaned off hydrocodone and medically treated for any withdrawal symptoms that arise.
Once detox is completed, you can receive intensive therapy and counseling through outpatient treatment, which helps you get to the underlying causes of your addiction.
Outpatient is recommended for opioid addiction because these substances profoundly rewire the brain, and the services that are available at this stage can be psychologically restorative.
Services that are commonly available in outpatient include:
- Medical maintenance therapy
- Group therapy
- Individual therapy
- Family therapy
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Dual diagnosis treatment
- Motivational Interviewing
- Stress management
- Educational classes
- Relapse prevention planning