Vicodin is a highly addictive, prescription opioid pain reliever that is not only widely abused but also the entry point into opioid addiction for thousands. In many cases, that journey to opioid addiction began at the dentist’s office where patients are provided Vicodin for procedures like wisdom teeth extractions.
According to a 2018 study of almost 80,000 patients published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 80 percent of people ages 13 to 30 who had their wisdom teeth removed filled an opioid prescription. That same study concluded that people who filled their opioid prescription were almost three times more likely to continue using opioids a year after their initial procedure as opposed to those who didn’t fill a prescription.
Then there is this National Institute on Drug Abuse-endorsed statistic, which states that about 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids, a metric that adds shape and dimension to America’s relentless opioid epidemic, where people who use prescription painkillers for common ailments get hooked into a life of illicit substance abuse — an all too common narrative.
Vicodin is definitely a part of that story. Plus, this dual medication has unique properties that, when abused recreationally, can inflict an array of devastating short and long-term effects and death.
What is Vicodin?
Vicodin is made up of hydrocodone and acetaminophen, the former being an opioid and the latter a non-opioid pain reliever. It is prescribed to treat moderate-to-severe pain. But the acetaminophen it contains was first employed for medical use over a century ago in 1893.
Almost 30 years after acetaminophen was introduced, a German pharmaceutical company developed hydrocodone. In 1978, that same company would go on to develop Vicodin. A generic version appeared in 1983.
When Vicodin emerged, it became a mainstay for pain relief and one of the best-known, highest-selling medications of the 20th century. Despite the introduction of newer, reportedly safer pain relievers, it has managed to remain a stalwart pain relief medication. In fact, ClinCalc.com has Vicodin listed as the 13th most prescribed medication of 2016 with prescriptions totaling around 43 million.
Vicodin is sold in capsule, tablet, or liquid form. As a medication, it is as potent as morphine. Because of its acetaminophen and hydrocodone composition, it produces dual effects. The acetaminophen reduces pain, and the hydrocodone produces a euphoric, sedating sensation. The latter effect, with its opioid attributes, is what compels people to abuse it.
Why Vicodin Abuse Happens
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) changed Vicodin from a Schedule III to Schedule II controlled substance, which went into effect in 2014.
That change meant that the highest drug enforcement authority in the country recognized that Vicodin had “a high potential for abuse, which may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.”
An advisory panel urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to consider banning Vicodin and other products like it due to the risks associated with it. For one, the acetaminophen component of the medication can cause acute liver injury, and the hydrocodone portion can inflict dependence and overdose. The FDA also urged drug makers to limit the amount of acetaminophen in their hydrocodone products.
Short- and Long-Term Effects of Vicodin
With Vicodin, the more you take, the stronger the effects. Though the way those effects can manifest vary from person to person, depending on the strength of the dose. The common short-term effects of Vicodin are:
- Deep calmness
- Brain fog
- Slower heart rate
- Difficulty urinating
- Reduced amount of physical pain
- Trouble sleeping
People who cope with chronic pain need pain relievers like Vicodin to help them live normal lives. Others abuse the drug for the euphoric highs it provides. Whatever the case, long-term Vicodin use can produce physical and psychological effects.
Often with opioid medications like Vicodin, users can quickly develop a tolerance where they require a larger dose to experience the same effect a smaller, previous amount yielded. In raw terms, someone with tolerance will go from taking one Vicodin pill a day to two or three.
Because it is an opioid medication that works to suppress the cardiovascular and central nervous system, it can cause shallow breathing. The lack of oxygen can impact the organs.
Vicodin’s other long-term physical and psychological effects include:
- Brain changes
- Mood swings
- Memory issues
- Isolating from others
- Not contending with emotional pain but numbing it instead
- Experiencing pain that is not there (pain perception)
- Increased anxiety
- Feeling very tired much of the time
- Lack of stress management
- Cardiovascular issues
- Difficulty sleeping
It’s worth noting that people who become dependent on Vicodin rely on it to feel happier or more relaxed. Long-term use can also produce the following psychological effects:
- Experiencing a range of mood changes, from anxiety to depression
- Relationship struggles
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Struggles with low-self esteem
When an Addiction to Vicodin is Present
When someone experiences withdrawal symptoms from Vicodin, it means their bodies have become accustomed to the presence of the drug in their bodies. Once the Vicodin leaves, they experience physical disturbances, which are really symptoms of withdrawal. This stage is a surefire sign of a looming addiction.
Like other opioid medications, Vicodin withdrawal symptoms present as flu-like symptoms. Those symptoms can include:
- Muscle pain
- Runny nose
- Pinpoint pupils
- Joint pain
- Abdominal cramps
- Heightened blood pressure
When someone displays compulsive behaviors around seeking and obtaining Vicodin, where they will use the drug despite adverse consequences, it means that dependency has bloomed into addiction.
A Vicodin addiction can cause people to exhibit some of the following behaviors:
- Constantly thinking about Vicodin
- Have strong cravings
- Going to great lengths to obtain it
- Not taking the drug as prescribed
- Taking Vicodin to avoid withdrawal symptoms
- Feeling unable to stop using it, despite repeated attempts
- They isolate themselves
- Have strained interpersonal relationships
- Using the drug, despite the negative consequences
- Hiding Vicodin use
Vicodin Overdose and Death
The danger of Vicodin and opioid addiction, in general, is that people can come to feel like they cannot live without it. Once they experience withdrawal, they go back to using the drug to feel “normal.” In such a relapse scenario, a person can take so much that they subject themselves to life-threatening overdose.
The risk of death is heightened when Vicodin is abused with alcohol or other drugs.
In fact, the overdose symptoms that come from Vicodin abuse can include loss of consciousness, death, seizures, slowed or stopped heartbeat, and slow, shallow or stopped breathing.
They can also experience narrowed or widened pupils, cold, clammy, or blue skin, and excessive sleepiness.
Because of the withdrawal symptoms and strong cravings associated with Vicodin, doing a “cold turkey detox” is not recommended.
Professional addiction treatment in a medically-supervised setting is best.
How Professional Treatment Can Help
A reputable professional recovery program will safely wean you off Vicodin using FDA-approved medications. The debilitating withdrawal symptoms and effects that occur are treated by a staff of doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel. This procedure is called medical detoxification, and it is the first step in a professional treatment program.
You can be administered medications like buprenorphine as part of a medication-assisted treatment (MAT) program, along with the therapy and counseling that is provided in outpatient treatment.
In an outpatient program, you can attend to your usual activities while receiving evidence-based and cutting-edge therapy to treat the mental and emotional aspects of your addiction.
The services provided in outpatient treatment include:
- Detoxification treatment
- 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