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Per the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 4.3 million Americans used narcotic pain relievers nonmedically in the month prior to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).
Over the course of that year, about 1.9 million Americans had an opiate pain reliever use disorder. One of the more commonly abused opiates is hydrocodone.
What Is Hydrocodone?Hydrocodone is a prescription analgesic used to treat moderate to moderately severe pain, and it’s commonly given in combination with acetaminophen. Hydrocodone classifies as a semisynthetic opiate, meaning it’s based on the poppy plant but it’s not completely natural.
Hydrocodone comes from a modified codeine molecule. It’s similar in structure to both codeine and morphine. The medication comes in an extended-release form that’s intended for all-day pain relief while standard hydrocodone may be given on an as-needed basis. Those who take hydrocodone may receive it in an oral tablet, capsule, or liquid solution. Some examples of medications consisting of hydrocodone include:
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) revealed that over 650,000 prescriptions for opiates are dispensed every day in the United States. Approximately 50 percent of opiate pain relievers are prescribed by primary care physicians.
Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) indicate an estimated 2.4 million people in America used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons for the first time in the previous year. This is equivalent to 6,600 people using prescription pain medications for the first time in an effort to get high over the course of one year. Over half of the people who used pain medications for the first time to feel its euphoric effects were women, and approximately one-third were between the ages of 12 and 17.
Does Hydrocodone Get You High?
In short, yes, hydrocodone can produce a high when abused, as it does have the potential to produce euphoria. People who abuse it report “nodding off,” feeling more social, feeling content, and having an overall warm feeling. People who abuse hydrocodone may also report feeling tired or lethargic. The effects of the drug are enhanced when the person takes it intranasally or intravenously, as doing so gets the active substance within the drug to reach the brain sooner.
In some instances, particularly with those who have little experience with opioids, new users may experience a mild euphoria even if they’re using the drug as prescribed. Generally, the feeling eases up over time as the person’s body adjusts to the medication. That being said, many people who take hydrocodone to manage pain never feel the euphoric or numb feeling caused by hydrocodone and other similar opiates.
Those who abuse hydrocodone, meaning they take a larger amount than prescribed, use it more frequently than recommended, or consume it via another means than as prescribed, will get high off the medication.
What Is Hydrocodone’s Mechanism of Action?
This analgesic binds with opioid receptors in the brain that control pain, which is how the drug provides relief for those who are in pain. The opioid receptors are the areas of the brain responsible for reward. The body produces chemicals that bind to the opioid receptors naturally to block pain, calm the body, act as an antidepressant, and slow breathing.
The body doesn’t produce enough of these substances naturally for someone to get high or to relieve a substantial amount of pain, but when additional substances are introduced and bind to these receptors, these effects are possible.
Abuse and AddictionHydrocodone is mentally and physically addictive, particularly when abused. Mayo Clinic states that the risk of developing a psychological addiction from a legitimate prescription – when using it as advised – is unlikely. Physical dependence on the drug will develop over time even when taking it as recommended; as a result, it’s important to consult the prescribing doctor when stopping use of hydrocodone.
The physical symptoms of withdrawal can occur in people who use the drug to relieve pain or suppress coughing, and then cease use. Generally, those who have taken hydrocodone for a prolonged amount of time or at high doses must be weaned off the drug slowly to prevent the serious side effects of physical withdrawal, such as:
- Stomach cramping
- Muscle aches and pains
- Bone pain
- Pupil dilatation
When people abuse the drug, psychological addiction can quickly form. When a person is psychologically addicted to an opioid pain reliever, they may suffer from anxiety and insomnia. Severe mood changes are possible too. The person will crave the drug and may even resort to illegal acts to obtain it.
- Can a Legitimate Hydrocodone Prescription Lead to Addiction?
- What Are the Short-Term Health Effects of Hydrocodone Abuse?
Those who take the prescription as prescribed can develop a tolerance for the drug, meaning they need more to produce the same pain-relieving effect. This may lead to the person increasing their dosage or taking the drug more frequently without consulting a physician. In addition, those who are prescribed the medication may experience a euphoric effect and decide to take more than prescribed or take it in higher dosages to intensify the effects. As this misuse increases, addiction becomes more likely.
Hydrocodone was found to be the cause of 431 deaths in Florida from January 2003 to June 2013, which was an 8.8 percent increase in the number of hydrocodone-related deaths from the previous six months, as denoted by statistics provided by the Drug Abuse Warning Network, also known as DAWN. DAWN stated that hydrocodone use for nonmedical purposes resulted in an estimated 82,480 emergency rooms visits in 2011 alone. This number represents an increase of 107 percent since 2004 when the number of hydrocodone-related emergency room visits was 39,846.
People who take hydrocodone for medical purposes are at risk of respiratory depression and experiencing a drop in blood pressure and a decrease in heart rate. These effects tend to be greater in people who abuse the drug. For example, it’s possible for a person to have a valid prescription for hydrocodone and experience respiratory depression; however, those who are taking it more frequently than prescribed or at high dosages put themselves at greater risk for respiratory depression. Sometimes, when people abuse the drug, respiratory depression is great enough to lead to coma or death.
Whether the person started abusing the drug for recreational purposes or ended up abusing it after receiving a prescription for it, tolerance occurs. The person requires more and more of the drug to feel the same effect; as the dosage gets greater, the chances of an overdose increase, especially if the person isn’t being monitored by a medical professional. Opioid overdoses took more than 33,000 lives in 2015, as documented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of all the overdoses, close to half were attributed to prescription opioids.
Other symptoms of short-term hydrocodone abuse include:
- Trouble sleeping
- Decrease in heart rate and blood pressure
- Nausea and vomiting in first-time users
What Are the Long-Term Health Risks?
Those who have asthma or another respiratory issue are oftentimes prescribed another pain medication that doesn’t put them at risk for serious respiratory consequences. This is because repeated abuse of hydrocodone damages the lungs and can increase a person’s likelihood of developing pneumonia.
All substances are metabolized by the liver. That means, drugs containing hydrocodone make the liver worker harder than it usually does. When hydrocodone is combined with acetaminophen, in medications like Vicodin, the liver works even harder. With frequent usage and at high dosages, drugs containing hydrocodone, and especially those with acetaminophen, will damage the liver. In some cases, the amount of acetaminophen is enough to cause complete liver failure.
When someone abuses hydrocodone, it can interfere with normal function of the brain’s reward system. In addition someone who abuses hydrocodone regularly may find it hard to experience pleasure from normal life activities.