Prescription medications have become some of the most commonly abused drugs available today. In fact, the National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that after marijuana and alcohol, prescription and over-the-counter drugs are the most abused substances among Americans over 14 years of age.
Part of the reason for such substances being so commonly abused is that opioid painkillers like Vicodin are being taken in record numbers, and not always legally.
What’s more, the dangers of Vicodin abuse and addiction can be so severe that once these substances are misused for the first time, the risk of further opioid abuse jumps enormously. A whopping 75% of opioid abuse actually begins with prescription drugs.
This guide will cover everything you need to know about Vicodin abuse and addiction, from how it’s abused and its effects on the body to its withdrawal symptoms and treatment options – along with everything in between.
Vicodin is a combination of acetaminophen and the semi-synthetic opioid hydrocodone. It’s mostly prescribed to treat significant and long-lasting pain.
Despite its lengthy history though, Vicodin is only recently being discovered as the highly addictive and dangerous substance that it really is. In just 2014, the U.S. government began responding to the growing opioid epidemic by reevaluating the legal classifications of many opioids and changed Vicodin from a Schedule III to a Schedule II drug.
Even still, hydrocodone has remained one of the top abused opioids in the entire country since 2009 according to one DEA report. It is highly addictive, especially dangerous, and to make matters worse, it’s widely prescribed across the country.
As an opioid, Vicodin and other hydrocodone-based medications have become a valuable product among drug dealers. As such, drugs like Vicodin have a number of street names that both dealers and addicts use to refer to them.
According to a DEA report, the most common ones include:
Hydrocodone can also be found in a number of brands beyond just Vicodin. The drugs below are all composed of both hydrocodone and acetaminophen and are commonly used to treat acute and chronic pain:
While the exact proportions of hydrocodone and acetaminophen may differ between them, each utilizes the same combination to treat pain.
Like all other opioids, drugs like Vicodin produce the euphoric and pain-relieving effects that they’re often used for by interacting directly with special regions on the brain’s cells called receptors.
Each of these specialized structures respond to a very particular type of chemical. Some cells have dopamine receptors, others have serotonin receptors. Nearly every chemical in the brain has a corresponding receptor that it fits into and activates.
Opioids like hydrocodone directly affect the opioid receptors of the brain, more technically the mu-opioid receptors. These receptors typically are activated by the brain’s natural opioids, endorphin and enkephalin.
However, opioids like Vicodin have an incredibly similar structure and are able to mimic the effects of these natural chemicals. What’s more, according to NIDA opioids like hydrocodone and heroin stimulate these receptors much more strongly than any natural opioid. The result is a more intense version of the natural effect that neurotransmitters like endorphin would typically create.
Hydrocodone is abused for the pleasant effects it creates when it is taken in high doses. As it interacts directly with the opioid receptors of the brain which often help regulate pain and mood, some of the most notable effects of opioids like Vicodin are feelings of euphoria as well as pain relief.
However, opioids are also considered central nervous system (CNS) depressants. As a result, they tend to slow the body’s natural processes down and bring on feelings of sedation and tranquility as well.
When abused in high doses, opioids like hydrocodone can cause people to lose consciousness and even slow their respiration to dangerous or even deadly levels.
Yes, hydrocodone is addictive in any form. Drugs like Vicodin all contain the opioid hydrocodone and nearly every opioid known of today (with the exception of some particularly amazing developments in pharmaceuticals) are all capable of creating physical dependency and eventual addiction.
Addiction is still in the process of being fully understood. It’s certainly come a long way from being the demonic possession of the dark ages to the moral failure of the 1960s. In fact, it’s only a recent development that addiction is actually looked at and treated as the disease it really is.
It can be incredibly difficult then (if not impossible), to say whether one person is going to develop an addiction and another is not since there are so many factors involved.
With prescription opioids in general though, it is possible to experience withdrawal symptoms after only two weeks of use. Since it’s so varied though, your best bet is to follow your doctor’s prescription exactly as it’s given.
Given that addiction to painkillers (especially opioids) can often begin with a perfectly legitimate prescription, you may be wondering, “Am I addicted to hydrocodone?”
Or maybe your partner or loved one has been taking medications like Vicodin regularly due to an actual medical problem and you’re worried that they may be developing a dependency.
While it may be easy to see the signs of addiction and abuse in others, it’s much harder for you to see those same signs in yourself. As the old saying goes, “Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it.”
As such, one of the best methods of determining whether you are suffering from an addiction to hydrocodone is to look at your behaviors objectively with the help of an online addiction quiz or other form of assessment.
You can also take an even deeper dive into your behaviors by seeing if you match up with the criteria for a substance use disorder used by actual practicing physicians and psychiatrists. It’s taken from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and is one of the most trusted resources in the medical field today.
No matter what assessment method you use, the important part is learning how to look at yourself objectively and acknowledging the fact that you may actually have a hydrocodone problem.
In addition to the desired effects of taking hydrocodone combination drugs such as Vicodin, there are also a significant number of other short-term side effects to be aware of, many of which can be quite unpleasant.
According to MedlinePlus, some of the most notable ones are:
What’s more, these side effects can become even more severe depending on the degree of abuse. If high amounts of Vicodin are abused in a short enough time period, it is also possible to overdose on this medication which could lead to permanent damage, coma, or death.
Similar to other opioids, some abusers of Vicodin and similar medications choose to inject hydrocodone rather than simply taking the pills as is. While this method of abuse will certainly speed up the onset of the drug (up to 5 minutes compared to half an hour), the hazards that come with abusing Vicodin this way are far more severe than any other method.
In the first place, injection bypasses the body’s natural filtering systems like the lungs, liver, and other physical filters. These organs all help to purify everything that enters your circulation before it travels to other vital organs like the heart and brain.
When you inject a drug however, it can skip most of these filtration systems and head directly to some of the other organs in the body before encountering these filters. What this means for your body is that some organs may be exposed to a much more potent version of a drug via injection compared to just taking a pill.
The result is a higher risk of overdose and death in IV (intravenous) drug users compared to other abusers who use alternate means.
Beyond that, there is also the added risk of contracting certain diseases like HIV and hepatitis through the transfer of blood borne pathogens when sharing needles. In fact, of the 39,513 U.S. diagnoses of HIV in 2015, 6% of those were attributable to intravenous drug use according to the CDC.
With all of these risks, the obvious course of action is to never inject hydrocodone or any other opioid. Ever.
As the body becomes more and more acclimated to the continuous presence of hydrocodone running through its systems, it begins to physically and chemically adapt through a process called tolerance.
But as your body becomes more tolerant, it also shifts further away from its ability to function without the presence of Vicodin. And when you remove it completely, your body is left in a panic and tries to shift back to the way it functioned before.
This process can result in a host of nasty and uncomfortable side effects known as withdrawals.
Since the opioid hydrocodone is the active ingredient in drugs like Vicodin and Lorcet, the withdrawal symptoms for them are quite similar to the withdrawals of other opioids such as heroin.
Many people report that the symptoms of opioid withdrawal are incredibly uncomfortable. In fact, opioid withdrawals regularly rank as the second most unpleasant drug to detox from (with benzodiazepines being the first).
One of the most inconvenient aspects of withdrawals from drugs like Vicodin is the fact that the symptoms tend to persist for an especially long time.
The medical information repository Healthline reports that the most common symptoms will generally last for about a month but can actually end up stretching into several months in some cases.
The withdrawal process usually consists of both an early and a protracted phase. The early phase will often begin around 6 to 30 hours after the last dose and will likely include:
After about 72 hours after the last dose, the protracted phase begins. This phase is characterized by increasingly severe early stage symptoms as well as a few new side effects including:
In most cases, symptoms will begin to improve after the first week but the timeline varies for each individual.
Some recovering hydrocodone addicts may also suffer from a condition known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome or PAWS. This condition is characterized by persistent withdrawal symptoms that may last for weeks, months, and even years at a time.
What’s more, the longer and more severe the addiction in the first place, the more likely it is you’ll develop this condition, making it even harder for long-time abusers to get clean.
Long-term use of hydrocodone (and increasingly opioids in general) is typically considered to be especially risky. The ever-growing opioid epidemic is forcing many physicians to reconsider prescribing opioids so haphazardly and, as a result, is causing many doctors to use other, less addictive substances to treat the same conditions.
That being said, there is still a long way to go in terms of cutting back on opioid abuse. What’s more, the damage is already done for a significant portion of the population who has already succumbed to opioid addiction. These are the people who are most likely to suffer the long-term risks of continual Vicodin abuse.
In addition to a higher risk of developing physical dependence and clinical addiction, persistent hydrocodone abuse can also lead to a number detrimental effects including:
Beyond these symptoms, researchers are currently studying the long-term effects that respiratory depression may have on the brain’s white matter. When the brain is starved of oxygen (a condition known as hypoxia), it can have a variety of both psychological and neurological effects. It may also result in a decreased ability to make decisions, regulate behavior, and respond effectively to stressful situations.
What’s more, long-term use of hydrocodone-based medications can also lead to the development of a condition known as serotonin syndrome where too much serotonin builds up in the brain. This condition is particularly dangerous and potentially fatal.
Opioids have recently been shown to have a direct effect on one of the brain’s most important neurotransmitters, serotonin. This chemical is used in a number of processes including regulation of mood, digestion, sleep, and even playing a significant role in addiction and withdrawals.
However, when Vicodin, Norco, Lorcet, or any other opioids are combined with other serotonergic medicines (medicines that affect serotonin), it can cause a condition known as serotonin syndrome. This syndrome is characterized by a buildup of the neurotransmitter in the brain to the point of it becoming actually toxic.
Some symptoms of this condition as provided by the F.D.A. include:
The F.D.A. also includes a list of serotonergic medicines on the same page. If you are considering taking Vicodin, Lorcet, or any other opioid for that matter, it’s crucial that you study the list and see if you’re at risk of developing this dangerous syndrome.
What’s more, be sure to follow the rule of thumb of telling your doctor about every medication you are taking. Holding back information just may end up costing you your life.
One of the most dangerous long-term effects of continued Vicodin abuse is an increased risk of overdose. Like other opioids, the hydrocodone contained in Vicodin can cause a number of potentially fatal effects when taken in especially large doses or in a very short period of time.
And since a hydrocodone overdose can be life-threatening just like with heroin, it’s incredibly important that you know the signs of a Vicodin overdose so you can seek medical help more quickly. When it comes to treating an overdose, every second counts.
According to MedlinePlus, some of the signs to look for when it comes to a hydrocodone and acetaminophen overdose are:
If you notice any of these signs, seek medical care immediately. Call 911 or the national poison help hotline at 1-800-222-1222.
It is important that you do not attempt to make the person overdosing throw up unless you are advised by poison control or a health care professional.
If at all possible, try to have the person’s age, weight, and condition available before calling as well as the name of the product, the time swallowed, the amount ingested, and whether it was actually prescribed for the person.
Withdrawals from opiates like hydrocodone can be incredibly painful and difficult to withstand. In fact, many opioid abusers end up using again simply to find some relief from these unbearable symptoms.
And if you are serious about overcoming your opiate addiction, the best way to ensure your success is by checking into a qualified and professional treatment center. There are a couple of reasons why using these facilities is far superior to trying to detox from Vicodin at home.
First, evidence-based treatment centers utilize two main types of therapies: pharmacotherapies and behavioral therapies. Pharmacotherapies make use of certain medications to help reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms, prevent overwhelming cravings, and disincentivize continued drug use.
A couple of these drugs that are useful in overcoming a hydrocodone dependency are Suboxone (which helps eliminate withdrawal symptoms) and Naltrexone (which takes away the euphoric effects of opioids like Vicodin).
Another beneficial aspect of these treatment centers is the fact that they will typically include a variety of behavioral therapies. While most pharmacotherapies aim to help the physical symptoms of addiction and withdrawal, behavioral therapies focus on addressing the psychological ones.
Group counseling, one-on-one therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), stress management strategies, practicing mindfulness, and other treatments will likely be a part of your comprehensive recovery program and will help ensure that when you get clean, you’re more likely to stay clean.
Hydrocodone is one of the most commonly abused prescription opioids on the market today. And given the significant dangers that go along with hydrocodone abuse and addiction, its abuse is not only widespread – it can be incredibly deadly as well.
However, you can overcome your hydrocodone addiction. And no matter how impossible it may seem right now, taking the steps to do so will likely be the best decision you’ve ever made.