What Is Hydrocodone Addiction?
Hydrocodone is a prescription Opioid painkiller, typically prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain. Unlike natural Opiates morphine and codeine, hydrocodone is a semi-synthetic opioid. Generally, doctors may decide to write a hydrocodone (brand name Vicodin®) prescription to treat short-term pain following dental surgery or for injury-related pain. However, due to the addictive nature of Opioids, regular use of hydrocodone can be habit-forming. Once the body becomes dependent on hydrocodone to feel normal, trying to quit taking them will result in symptoms of withdrawal. To mitigate withdrawal, individuals should treat their hydrocodone addiction through detox and rehab.
In as little as five days of prescribed use, the risk for developing a chronic hydrocodone addiction increases significantly.
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Hydrocodone Addiction and Its Effects on the Body
Hydrocodone, like other opioids, works by binding to pain receptors (known specifically as mu opioid receptors) in the brain. Once hydrocodone binds to these receptors, pain signals are weakened or blocked entirely. Mu opioid receptors are also responsible for the positive reinforcement aspect of drug-taking. Feel-good sensations of euphoria produced by opioids are likewise introduced here and encourage people to take the drug again. Often, when people try to quit or reduce the amount of hydrocodone they’re taking, they discover how dependent their bodies have become on the painkiller. After repeated use, opioids’ action in the frontal cortex weaken the individual’s ability to control decision-making and regulate mood.
While hydrocodone is typically taken orally, some who abuse the drug crush the pills and either snort or inject the powder.
Because most people with a hydrocodone addiction begin by misusing a prescription given to them by their doctor, it can be difficult to see the signs of addiction. Prescription drug abuse involves taking pills more often than prescribed, continuing to take them beyond their prescribed timeframe, and taking them in a way other than how they were intended (such as snorting or injecting them).
Addiction is diagnosed on a spectrum from mild to moderate to severe. Some signs of hydrocodone addiction include taking more than intending to and prioritizing drug use over personal or professional responsibilities. As an individual’s tolerance to the effects of hydrocodone builds, people will need higher doses to keep withdrawal symptoms at bay.
Immediate Effects of Hydrocodone Misuse and Abuse Include:
- Blurry vision
- Dry mouth
- Itchy skin
- Nodding in and out of consciousness
- Pinpoint pupils
- Reduced breathing rate
- Slowed heartbeat
- Slurred speech
- Warm, flushed skin
Long-term abuse of hydrocodone not only changes the way the brain functions but can have lasting effects on mood and thought patterns. People who have abused hydrocodone for a prolonged period of time are likely to suffer insomnia, liver or kidney disease, depression, and anxiety. Some mental disorders, like insomnia and depression, can be treated through therapy and medication like antidepressants. However, damage done to the liver and kidneys is difficult to reverse, as well as treat.
Taking too much hydrocodone can result in an overdose. When the body is unable to process all of the opioids in its system, breathing and heart rates can plummet. In just a few minutes, someone overdosing on hydrocodone may stop breathing, depriving their brains of oxygen (also known as hypoxia).
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Types of Hydrocodone
In addition to Vicodin, other brand name versions of hydrocodone include Norco® and Lortab®. Each iteration contains hydrocodone and non-opioid pain reliever, acetaminophen. Hydrocodone without acetaminophen is sold under brand name Zohydro®. Some individuals with a hydrocodone addiction have a specific brand they prefer, despite all opioids having similar effects if taken in large enough quantities (including morphine, codeine, and Heroin). Researchers say this type of preference has practical and psychological foundations.
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(5mg, 7.5mg, or 10mg combined with 300mg acetaminophen)
What Vicodin looks like: white tablets with dosage amount debossed on one side and “VICODIN” (may also have ES or HP) on the other.
Each Vicodin tablet has 300 mg of acetaminophen and comes in three different dosage levels of hydrocodone—5 mg, 7.5 mg and 10 mg. It is generally prescribed for one tablet taken every 4 to 6 hours, though addicts may take much higher doses.
In 2011, up to 131 million Americans were prescribed Vicodin, often in unnecessary strengths and quantity. In 2014, lawmakers recognized the increasing danger of hydrocodone combination products and changed them from Schedule III to Schedule II controlled substances. Then, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that all manufacturers cease marketing products with more than 325mg of acetaminophen due to increased risk of liver damage and accidental acetaminophen overdose when taking acetaminophen daily. Previous formulations included 500 mg to 750 mg of acetaminophen per pill.
(7mg, 10mg combined with 325 mg acetaminophen)
What Norco looks like: white tablets with orange specks with “WATSON” debossed on one side and 913 on the other, light orange tablets with “NORCO® 729” on one side and bisected on the other, and yellow tablets with “NORCO 539” debossed on one side and bisected on the other.
Though Vicodin is by far the most common hydrocodone prescription, Norco is still commonly used. It is most often prescribed in two strengths: 7.5 mg or 10 mg of hydrocodone combined with 325 mg of acetaminophen.
Prior to the FDA lowering acceptable levels of acetaminophen in medication, Norco had the least amount of acetaminophen. Subsequently, some addicts chose Norco over other prescription painkillers to avoid the increased risk of consuming too much acetaminophen. Currently however, it has the highest percentage of acetaminophen of the hydrocodone variants.
(5mg, 7.5mg, 10mg combined with 325mg acetaminophen)
What Lortab looks like: tablets in multiple colors depending on strength (white with pink, green, or blue specks, or wholly pink) with “ucb” debossed on one side and a number (901, 902, 903, 910) on the other.
Lortab is a brand name version of hydrocodone similar to brands Norco® and Lorcet®.
(10mg, 15mg, 20mg, 30mg, 40mg, 50mg)
What Zohydro looks like: white, light green, dark blue, or dark brown capsules with “Z3## [dosage] mg” in black ink.
Zohydro was the first purely hydrocodone medication approved by the FDA in 2013. The agency approved the medication against the advice of its scientific advisory board, which voted 11-2 to deny Zohydro’s approval. The addition of acetaminophen is thought to lower hydrocodone’s risk of abuse, causing many to question the FDA’s decision to approve Zohydro.
Because pure hydrocodone has a higher risk of abuse than found in Vicodin, Norco, and Lortab, it is generally only prescribed for severe pain. This medication is designed to treat individuals with severe, chronic pain who are opioid tolerant and have not found relief with alternate treatment options.
Hydrocodone Addiction Statistics
In 2014, doctors wrote 120 million hydrocodone prescriptions.
pills per patient
After hydrocodone (Vicodin) was moved from a Schedule III to a Schedule II substance, there was a 7 pill per patient prescribing rate increase in the U.S.
In 2015, 12.5 million Americans used hydrocodone in the past year; 2 million were addicted to prescription painkillers.
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If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction to hydrocodone, now is the time to get help. Contact a treatment provider to find out more about what options are available to start a new life free from addiction.