The Dangers of Percocet Use and Overdose
Percocet is the brand name of an opiate pharmaceutical drug that is usually prescribed to relieve moderate to severe pain, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Percocet is also prescribed to individuals suffering from chronic pain. Percocet contains oxycodone hydrochloride, which influences the brain’s perception of pain, and acetaminophen, which inhibits pain-related chemicals in the brain.
Percocet may induce serious side effects if used improperly, and it is one of the most common abused prescription drugs. Prescription painkiller abuse is a widespread problem in the US and around the world, with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reporting that over 2 million people in the US suffered from a substance use disorder related to the drugs in 2012. Due to the potential for abuse and addiction with Percocet, the drug’s manufacturer, Endo Pharmaceuticals, states in the prescribing information for Percocet that it is normally reserved for those who are tolerant to other opioids or those who haven’t obtained pain relief from other sources.
An individual can overdose on Percocet if the drug is taken more often than prescribed, if tablets are crushed or chewed, or if it is combined with other sedatives, such as alcohol or sleeping pills. Overdose is considered a medical emergency. Without prompt treatment, serious health effects and even death can occur.
Long-term abuse of Percocet can lead to addiction, negatively impacting an individual’s long-term health, as well as their psychological and emotional wellbeing. Thankfully, comprehensive addiction treatment can help individuals safely withdraw from this prescription drug and stop abuse of all substances.
Short-Term and Long-Term Effects
Even when used legitimately, under a doctor’s supervision, Percocet can cause a variety of side effects. If a person experiences these side effects, they should promptly contact the prescribing doctor. In many instances, mild side effects will subside after a few days; however, it’s important that the supervising physician is made aware of all issues.
Mild side effects include:
- Blurred vision
- Dry mouth
In other instances, serious side effects may occur. These can be signs of an allergic reaction to the medication. The person should immediately stop taking the medication and contact the prescribing physician. If severe issues present, such as chest pain or seizures, call 911 immediately.
Severe side effects include:
- Extreme fatigue
- Chest pain
- Increased thirst
- Hypotension or hypertension
- Shallow breathing
- Slowed heartbeat
- Feeling lightheaded or fainting
- Confusion or unusual thoughts or behavior
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
- Problems with urination, including dark urine
- Gastrointestinal problems, including diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, or loss of appetite
- Visual disturbances
- Anxiety, agitation, or nervousness
There are certain populations that are more at risk of experiencing negative side effects from Percocet. There is an increased risk of birth defects in the babies of mothers who use Percocet during their first two months of pregnancy. Elderly individuals, those with head injuries, and debilitated individuals have an increased risk for respiratory depression when taking Percocet, as do those with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), or respiratory impairment.
Individuals struggling with an alcohol use disorder are at an increased risk of experiencing acute liver failure due to the acetaminophen component of Percocet. If a person takes too much acetaminophen or combines its use with alcohol, it puts too much stress on the organ, often leading to long-term damage or even failure.
When abused, Percocet can produce a sense of wellbeing, euphoria, and pleasure. This is because the drug influences regions of the brain involved in reward and pleasure.
Although Percocet is often viewed as safer than illegal drugs, it works in the body in the same way as illicit opioids like heroin. As with heroin, tolerance to Percocet forms quickly, causing people to take increasingly higher doses of the drug to feel the same effects once experienced with lower doses. With continued use, physical dependence also forms quickly, rapidly leading to full-blown addiction.
According to a 2013 survey published by NIDA, 2.7 times more opioids were prescribed that year than in 1991. The US is the largest global consumer of prescription painkillers by far.
While legitimate use of Percocet can induce side effects in many instances, the risks of negative health effects compound exponentially when the drug is abused. As with most substance abuse, the severity of the effects increase with chronic, high-dose use. In addition, risks are heightened when the drug is combined with other substances of abuse.
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Long-term effects from Percocet abuse include:
- Liver damage
- Kidney failure
- Severe constipation
- Urinary retention
- Slightly decreased testosterone levels in men
- Physical and psychological dependence
- Immune suppression
Additionally, chronic use of Percocet creates physiological changes in the brain. Percocet binds to opiate receptors in the brain, which creates painkilling and euphoric effects, according to the Science & Practice Perspectives journal. If Percocet is regularly used over a period of time, the opioid receptors become less responsive to opioid stimulation. As a result, a higher concentration of opiates is needed to fill the receptors to achieve the same effect. Without activating these receptors in the brain, the individual will experience feelings of increased pain and discomfort as well as depressed mood.
Early intervention is the best prevention against long-term effects of Percocet use. Signs of Percocet abuse include:
- Withdrawn behavior
- Isolation and mood changes
- An inability to stop using the drug despite a desire to do so
- Obsessive preoccupation with the drug
- Increased tolerance
- Using the drug to relieve withdrawal symptoms
- Feeling like Percocet is necessary to perform everyday activities
- Disengaging in normal activities in order to use Percocet
- Sexual dysfunction
- Excessive sweating
Largely as a result of overprescribing practices, the number of emergency department visits involving nonmedical use of opioids has dramatically increased, as well as the number of admissions to detox centers for opioid withdrawal due to addiction. Furthermore, the number of deaths due to opioid overdose has tripled over the last two decades, with more people dying due to opioid overdose than from any other prescription drug.
Per Business Insider, the FDA will “add their strongest warning labels” to widely prescribed painkillers, including Percocet, disclosing the risk of addiction, abuse, and death. This is partially in response to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that deaths tied to the misuse and abuse of prescription narcotics hit 19,000 in 2014. Per NIDA, in 2010, 82.8 percent of 16,490 unintentional deaths due to all prescription drugs were related to opioid pain relievers.
Overdose constitutes a medical emergency. Signs of overdose on Percocet include respiratory depression, coma, cold and clammy skin, a bluish tint to the lips or nails, constriction of the pupils, slowed heart rate, and hypotension. Severe cases of overdose may result in apnea, circulatory collapse, cardiac arrest, or death.
In many cases, emergency treatment can temporarily reverse a Percocet overdose. According to the 2010 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, naloxone, an opioid overdose antidote, reversed more than 10,000 overdose cases between 1996 and 2010. Since naloxone has a shorter half-life than Percocet, further medical treatment is needed to ensure overdose doesn’t recur after the initial overdose is reversed. Many first responders carry naloxone; in addition, individuals in some states may keep naloxone on hand if a loved one abuses opioids.
Treatment for Percocet Abuse and Addiction
Addiction to Percocet should always be treated with the help of professionals. While opioid withdrawal is not generally considered life-threatening, it can be very uncomfortable, often resulting in relapse as the person simply takes more Percocet in order to combat the painful withdrawal symptoms. As a result, medical detox, often with the use of replacement medications, is usually recommended.
Withdrawal symptoms from Percocet may include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Upset stomach
- Cold sweats
- Cravings for Percocet
- Agitation and anxiety
- Irritability and anger
- Problems with concentration
- Mood swings
- Muscle and joint pain
Symptoms experienced during the initial phase of withdrawal are largely physical with some emotional components. Acute withdrawal symptoms generally peak between the first and third days after last use of the drug. However, emotional withdrawal symptoms, as well as lingering physical symptoms, may last for weeks or even months.
Medications can be helpful during the withdrawal stage of treatment, as they can minimize cravings and lessen both physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms. FDA-approved medications for opioid withdrawal and addiction treatment include methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone. These medications treat opioid addiction through activating the same receptors in the brain as the drug of abuse. Buprenorphine is often used because it has less abuse potential than methadone; it also comes in an abuse-deterrent form, known as Suboxone, where it is combined with naloxone. Research has demonstrated that medications administered in a detox facility, along with therapy, can reduce rates of relapse, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
In addition to opioid replacement medication, other medications may be prescribed during withdrawal to alleviate specific symptoms. This may include anti-anxiety medications to address agitation or anti-nausea medications to address vomiting or stomach upset.
While detox is often the first step in addiction treatment, it must be followed by comprehensive therapy in order to effectively address issues related to substance abuse. If therapy doesn’t follow withdrawal, relapse is highly likely.
Addiction treatment therapy can help individuals recovering from Percocet addiction by identifying triggers to use substances and developing healthy coping skills to deal with these triggers that don’t involve substance abuse. In addition, clients will address past trauma that may have contributed to their substance abuse and learn to modify negative thoughts and patterns of behavior. Therapy can also help to repair relationships, increase self-esteem, and assist in overcoming present challenges. Most addiction treatment programs offer individual, group, and family counseling services.
Treatment must be individualized to address each client’s unique situation. Therapy helps individuals move into the ongoing recovery phase by uncovering underlying issues related to Percocet abuse. In addition, clients undergo a comprehensive assessment at the beginning of treatment. In some cases, there may be previously undiagnosed mental health problems present, and clients may have used opioids in an attempt to self-medicate these symptoms. If other mental health issues are present, treatment for all co-occurring disorders must be provided.
Following discharge from a treatment center, individuals should engage in ongoing aftercare programs. This may include continued outpatient therapy, participation in support groups or 12-Step programs, residence in a sober living home, and maintenance of a healthy diet and regular exercise program to promote overall health and continued sobriety. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration emphasizes that addiction is a disease and not merely a sign of weakness or lack of willpower. While comprehensive addiction treatment sets the foundation for full recovery from Percocet addiction, recovery is an ongoing process.