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Opioid painkiller addiction is a rapidly growing problem in the US. In fact, addiction to these substances has been declared an epidemic, with many lawmakers seeking ways to end addiction to these powerful painkillers, as well as limit access. Since 2000, overdose deaths from prescription opioid painkillers have risen dramatically, with more than 14,000 deaths in 2014 attributed to prescription painkiller overdose.
Three commonly prescribed opioid medications are Vicodin, OxyContin, and morphine. Vicodin is the brand name for a combination of hydrocodone and acetaminophen. OxyContin is a long-acting oxycodone-based painkiller, with different doses used to treat chronic pain conditions, arthritis, physical injuries, or cancer. Morphine is a strong opioid painkiller that is used to treat severe pain, often in a hospital or hospice setting.Vicodin is one of the most frequently prescribed narcotic painkillers, which many people are introduced to after surgery or an accident. This medication is used to treat anything from pain after wisdom tooth removal to pain after a work-related accident. The drug is often given with the goal that the prescribing doctor can taper the patient off the medication as the pain improves; however, some individuals become addicted to Vicodin after receiving a prescription for this drug, which leads them to seek more of it.
OxyContin is generally used to treat chronic pain conditions or for strong pain following surgery. Morphine is typically prescribed for people who need long-term pain treatment or for serious, end-of-life pain management. Because they are both powerful opioid drugs, many people seek these medications out and abuse them. When these medications are taken in large quantities, ingested in ways that override their long-acting functions, or taken without a doctor’s oversight, they can be very dangerous and lead to overdose.
How Does an Overdose on Vicodin, OxyContin, or Morphine Occur?
When people take too much of an opioid painkiller like Vicodin, OxyContin, or morphine, they can experience depressed or slowed breathing, confusion, lack of oxygen to the brain, and possibly even death. While alcohol, sedatives, or combinations of opioid pain medications are present in many opioid overdose deaths, often illustrating recreational use, an opioid overdose is possible in some cases when a person accidentally takes too much of their prescription medication.
Because oxycodone and hydrocodone are the most commonly prescribed opiates, they are two of the most common culprits involved in opioid overdose deaths. However, fentanyl and morphine are also very common opioids found in individuals who suffer an overdose. Sometimes, people who suffer from addiction to opioid prescription medications develop a tolerance to the drugs, so they feel like they need more of the drug to feel “normal,” or to achieve the same high as the first time they took the drug. In the effort to chase that high, people can easily take too much and overdose. In other cases, an overdose on opioid medication is accidental, such as people misreading their prescriptions or forgetting that they took their medication already.
Vicodin also poses a risk of acetaminophen overdose. Acetaminophen is a non-opioid painkiller found in a variety of over-the-counter medications, including cough syrups and Tylenol. Too much acetaminophen can destroy the liver, leading to liver failure and an inability to process toxins.
For a person to overdose on acetaminophen, the person must take over 4,000 mg a day, but with the drug found in doses of up to 350 mg in Extra Strength Tylenol, as well as in many other medications, it can be easy to take too much without knowing it. Individuals who suffer from an addiction to Vicodin, or the oxycodone equivalent Percocet, could experience acetaminophen overdose just as easily as they might experience an opioid overdose.
Symptoms of an Overdose on Vicodin, OxyContin, or Morphine
Symptoms of an opioid overdose include:
- Confusion, delirium, or acting drunk
- Mood swings
- Nausea or vomiting
- Extreme constipation
- Pinpoint pupils
- Extreme sleepiness, or the inability to wake up
- Breathing problems, including slowed or irregular breathing
- Stopped breathing
- Cold, clammy skin, or bluish skin around the lips or under the fingernails
Depressed breathing is the most dangerous side effect of opioid overdose. Lack of oxygen to the brain can cause other organ systems, like the kidneys or heart, to shut down. If a person suffering an opioid overdose is left alone and falls asleep, the person could die due to depressed, and eventually cessation of, breathing.
Help for an Overdose
People can take too much of a strong prescription painkiller like Vicodin, OxyContin, or morphine, whether they struggle with addiction to these medications or not. It is vitally important to get emergency medical help as soon as possible by calling 911. While waiting for emergency medical help to arrive, roll the person suffering from the opioid overdose on their side to protect them from choking in the event that they vomit while unconscious. If the individual is conscious, keep them awake and talking as much as possible.
Do not leave a person experiencing an overdose on Vicodin, OxyContin, or morphine alone. Individuals suffering from an opioid overdose can get worse quickly and should not be alone. If they are conscious, they could wander away and hurt themselves; if they are unconscious, they could stop breathing.
Naloxone to Reverse Opioid Overdoses
One of the most important treatments for opioid overdose is naloxone. This medication has been used in emergency rooms for several years to reverse opioid overdoses, especially heroin overdoses. However, with the growing prescription painkiller abuse epidemic, states are pushing emergency responders and even caregivers to carry injectable or nasal spray forms of naloxone to treat people who might suffer from an opioid overdose.
Naloxone binds to the same receptors in the brain as opioid drugs, preventing the drug from creating a “high” for up to one hour after administration. This means this drug effectively stops an overdose for a period of time, which can be enough time for medical professionals to arrive. However, naloxone is metabolized faster than opioid drugs like Vicodin, OxyContin, and morphine, so it is still necessary to call 911 for emergency medical help. The overdose has not stopped for good, but only temporarily, and the person suffering from the opioid overdose will still need further medical attention.
Naloxone has not been found to be habit-forming or physically dangerous, so this medication can be used safely in overdose situations for any individual.
Is an Opioid Overdose a Sign to Get Help?
An overdose is a frightening, life-threatening situation. For people who survive an opioid overdose, it can be the first sign that they need to get help. If people struggle with an addiction to Vicodin, OxyContin, or morphine, they should seek help from addiction rehabilitation programs, whether they have suffered an overdose or not.Inpatient rehabilitation programs can be very effective for people who want to stop taking opioid medications. Inpatient programs offer medical oversight during withdrawal, which can ease withdrawal symptoms and quell cravings. These programs also offer talk and group therapy, so clients can build a social support network and learn better coping mechanisms to manage cravings and stress. Inpatient programs also take clients out of stressful environments where they have access to opioid medications, so they don’t have the opportunity to relapse during this precarious stage of early recovery. Before clients return to life in the real world, they build a firm foundation in recovery, which can help them to sustain their newfound sobriety.