Hydrocodone is an opioid similar to morphine that is synthesized from codeine. Unlike naturally occurring opioids such as morphine and codeine, hydrocodone is created in a laboratory. It’s typically used in the treatment of moderate to severe pain and acts as both an antitussive (cough suppressant) and an analgesic (pain reliever). It is legally prescribed in the United States as a pain medication, however, it carries a high risk of abuse and addiction.
Hydrocodone was first developed in the 1920s by a German pharmaceutical company named Knoll. It was initially used as a cough suppressant and a pain reliever as it was thought to work better than codeine for coughs and as well as morphine for pain relief. Although the intention was that this drug would be less addictive than morphine and codeine, statistics show that it’s just as addictive as other opioids.
Hydrocodone is also used frequently for non-medical illicit purposes. Because it’s the most prescribed opioid in the United States, it is fairly easy to obtain. Users will obtain the drug by getting false prescriptions, stealing other peoples’ prescriptions, using prescriptions that aren’t for them, altering prescriptions, and purchasing the drug online. Hydrocodone is abused for its euphoric effects and feelings of “high” that the substance produces. It’s typically abused orally, with users often combining it with other substances.
Hydrocodone comes in the form of extended-release (long-acting) capsules and tablets that are taken orally. The capsule is typically taken once every 12 hours and the tablet is typically taken once a day. Hydrocodone also comes in hundreds of combination medications such as Vicodin and Lortab which are made up of hydrocodone and acetaminophen.
Some of the brand names for hydrocodone are:
Some of the names used to describe illicit forms of hydrocodone are:
Hydrocodone is the most prescribed opioid in the United States. Over the last three decades, the United States has been going through an opioid crisis. The over-prescription of opioid medication, as well as its highly addictive properties, have meant that more and more people have started to overdose and die from the misuse of opioids.
In 2013, over 136.7 million prescriptions for hydrocodone and hydrocodone combination products were dispensed. In 2016, 93.7 million prescriptions were dispensed and in 2017, 83.6 million were dispensed.1 Due to the increasing efforts to combat the opioid crisis, increased awareness around the addictiveness of opioids, and stricter clinical guidelines for prescribing opioids, the rates of prescriptions dispensed has been started to go down over the years.1 This is a positive sign, however, opioid abuse is still a big problem in the U.S.
In 2015, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that a startling 7.2 million people over the age of 12 reported misusing hydrocodone. In 2016 and 2017, this number decreased to 6.9 million people and decreased again in 2018 to 5.5 million people.1 Considering that as many as 5.5 million people abuse hydrocodone alone, you can only imagine how many people are abusing other opioids and prescription medications, painting a concerning picture about the rates of opioid abuse in the U.S.1
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), approximately 24.4 million people over the age of 12 have used hydrocodone for non-medical reasons, with a large portion of these people being teenagers.2
Hydrocodone is a controlled substance that is a Schedule II substance in the Controlled Substances Act.2 A Schedule II substance is one that has both a medically legitimate purpose but also carries a high potential for abuse. It also means that there are quotas on how much can be produced, restrictions on the number of prescriptions, and punishments for illegal use.2
When hydrocodone is combined with other medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, it is considered to be a Schedule III substance.2 A schedule III substance has a legitimate medical purpose and carries a moderate to low risk of abuse. In other words, pure hydrocodone is considered to be riskier in terms of developing a dependence on the substance.
When using hydrocodone, there is a risk that you might experience the following side effects:
Feelings of euphoria
Swelling in the face/throat/foot/leg/ankle
Trouble falling/staying asleep
Some of the side-effects that you might experience if you use this drug for a long period of time are:
Increased risk of heart attack
Increased risk of infection
Substance abuse disorder
Some of the more specific chronic health problems that can result from the prolonged use of hydrocodone are:
Excessive use can lead to chronic constipation which damages the bowels. This could result in hemorrhoids, tearing of the skin in and around the anus, ulcers, gastrointestinal bleeding, and other problems.
Excessive use over a long period can reduce your breathing rate which reduces the amount of oxygen your body takes in. This can result in organ damage and even sudden death. Crushing and smoking the drug can also lead to lung damage.
Chronic use can decrease your hormone levels which can cause fertility problems. Lower hormone levels can also increase your risk of depression, anxiety, fatigue, osteoporosis, and bone fractures.
Hyperalgesia occurs when you develop increased sensitivity to pain. Chronic use can damage the opioid receptors in your brain which impacts your brain’s response to pain. This may cause you to feel excessive pain because you are more sensitive to pain.
Long term use can affect how the brain releases and absorbs chemicals. Over time this can impact the structure of the brain, resulting in changes to emotional controls, rationality, memory, and the ability to learn.
Combination hydrocodone medication that includes acetaminophen or ibuprofen poses a high risk of liver damage or liver failure.
Yes, you can. As with all other opioids, taking too much at once can result in an overdose. Symptoms of an overdose include:3
Cold and clammy skin
Narrowed or widened pupils
In the event of an overdose, it is extremely important to seek emergency medical assistance. Overdosing can be fatal so it is important to seek help immediately and to administer naloxone if available. Naloxone is a mediation that is used to reverse the life-threatening effects of an overdose.3 You will still need to seek emergency medical help even after administering naloxone. If you administer one dose of naloxone and symptoms of an overdose return after a few minutes, another dose of naloxone should be administered.3
Hydrocodone is considered to be highly addictive. This is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it can make you experience the following feelings:
Increased sense of well-being
Numbness of physical and emotional pain
Relaxed and free of stress
Some people will misuse this drug to feel positive effects, while some will use it to numb any physical or emotional pain, or to cope with stress and anxiety.
Addiction develops over time, when you use the drug in excessive amounts, more frequently than normal, or for prolonged periods, your body begins to develop a physical dependence on the drug.
In other words, your body and brain learn to function with the drug in your system, therefore causing dependence on the drug. The more you take, the stronger your tolerance to the drug will be, and therefore you will need to take increasingly higher doses to feel the same desired effects. This will most likely result in dependence and addiction, and if you were to stop taking the drug, you would experience withdrawal symptoms.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders outlines diagnostic criteria for substance use disorders. Signs that you or someone you know might be struggling with addiction are:
Taking higher doses than intended
Taking the drug for longer than intended
Spending a lot of time obtaining and using the drug
Having strong cravings
Failing to fulfill responsibilities at work, home, or school
Continuing to use the drug despite problems with relationships
Not attending or giving up social activities or hobbies
Putting yourself in dangerous situations to get the drug
Using the drug even when it has negatively impacted your physical or mental health
Needing to use more of the drug to feel the same effects
Developing withdrawal symptoms when not using the drugs
Taking the drug in methods other than prescribed
The safest way to stop the use of hydrocodone is through medical detox. A medical detox program will help you to stop the drug use safely and comfortably. Typically, your vital signs will be monitored, and medications may be used to help alleviate withdrawal symptoms and prevent relapse. Medications will help to decrease cravings while lowering your tolerance. Medical detox can occur at inpatient or outpatient programs and will be tailored to each individual.
Depending on how long you have been taking hydrocodone and the dosage that you have been taking, you may experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking the substance. Typically, the withdrawal will begin between 6-12 hours after taking your last dose. Withdrawal symptoms usually peak within 72 hours and can last from between a week to a few months. For people who abuse hydrocodone and take it in excess amounts, withdrawal symptoms will usually be more severe. The best way to avoid withdrawal symptoms is to gradually taper off of drug use, as instructed by your physician.
When you have taken hydrocodone for a prolonged period of time, suddenly stopping taking the drug can cause you to experience withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms occur when your body has developed tolerance and dependence. When your body learns to function with hydrocodone in your system, stopping its use will cause your body to react to its absence, producing withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms include:
Loss of appetite
The safest way to stop the use of hydrocodone is to gradually lower the dose that you are taking. This should be done following your doctor’s instructions. If you are taking the drug illicitly, consider seeking out a medical detox to stop the use, or at the very least, lower the dose that you are taking gradually over the span of a few weeks or months, depending on how high the dosage you have been taking is.
Treatment options for substance use disorder typically involve some form of counseling or therapy and medication-assisted therapy.
Naloxone can help to reverse the effects of an overdose and can also be used in combination with other drugs such as buprenorphine during the treatment process to help alleviate withdrawal symptoms. Buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone all work to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms and to reduce to risk of relapse. These medications ‘replace’ hydrocodone in a sense, to help users adjust to the absence of hydrocodone.
In addition to medication-assisted therapy, a major component of substance abuse disorder treatment is counseling, therapy, or peer support groups Counseling can occur in an inpatient facility or an outpatient facility.
To overcome substance use disorder, it is important to tackle the underlying reasons that started your substance abuse. Counseling and therapy will help to identify patterns surrounding use, problematic behaviors, and ways to improve on healthy habits and creating a healthier lifestyle. Treatment programs that include counseling will help patients to:
Learn relapse prevention skills, healthy boundaries, and communication skills
Engage in alternative recreational activities
Adopt skills that help to rebuild and maintain relationships
Receive education surrounding substance abuse disorders
Develop coping skills
Develop coping skills
Peer support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous also exist for people who struggle with substance use disorders and are looking to connect with other people who are experiencing the same thing. While peer support groups are not medical treatments, they help people to not feel alone in their experience and to help keep them accountable in their treatment.
The treatment of substance use disorders must address the whole person, their physical and mental health. Substance use disorder is often linked to various other aspects of a person, their personality, their mental health, their physical health, their personality traits, their relationships, and more. It is also very important to have the support of family and friends as recovery can be a long and hard journey, and it is essential to have a strong support group.