For countless people in severe pain, hydrocodone seems like a miracle drug. Surgeries, injuries, and chronic conditions can make life challenging, and significant relief is found by people who thought they would always have to live in agony. Hydrocodone is one of the most frequently prescribed medications in the United States, with over 140 million prescriptions written every year.
In October 2014, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enacted regulations changing the classification of hydrocodone from Schedule III to Schedule II. This change reflects the understanding that although hydrocodone is useful and commonly prescribed, it represents a danger to its users is terms of its potential for abuse and addiction.
What Is Hydrocodone?
Hydrocodone is a semi-synthetic medication that is used extensively for pain relief and to treat coughs. It is synthesized from the poppy plant, making it an opiate, and relieves pain by attaching to the brain’s opiate receptors.
Illegal opiates include heroin and cocaine, but many opiates are legal and highly regulated, including prescription drugs like hydrocodone, oxycodone, codeine, and morphine. Opiates are currently the most frequently used medications to treat moderate or severe pain.
What Is Hydrocodone Abuse?
Since hydrocodone is so effective at relieving pain, people sometimes take it in ways that the prescribing physician did not intend. This includes:
- Taking more than the prescribed amount
- Taking it more often than prescribed
- Taking someone else’s prescription
- Taking it in a way other than intended, such as crushing pills and then snorting or injecting the resulting powder
Doctors are careful to prescribe certain dosages for specific needs and situations, so any time someone takes hydrocodone in a way other than what a physician has directed, even if the person is treating pain, it is considered abuse.
Hydrocodone also has other effects in addition to pain relief. Some people find that it relaxes them, gives them a sense of wellbeing or euphoria, or makes them feel warm and content. Hydrocodone is not indicated for depression, anxiety, or unhappiness, and taking it to treat those states is considered abuse as well.
In short, any use of hydrocodone that was not prescribed by a physician is considered abuse.
Who Is Likely to Abuse Hydrocodone?
There are two categories of people who might abuse hydrocodone: those who are in pain and have prescriptions for hydrocodone, and those who take hydrocodone for its other effects. While some people abuse hydrocodone in an effort to adapt to an increasingly higher tolerance to the drug, others use it recreationally, in an effort to chase a “high.”
Hydrocodone is prescribed for many different types of pain, including chronic or long-term pain. Unfortunately, it is possible that after a while, the original prescription no longer alleviates the patient’s pain as well as it once did. Since physicians are very wary of increasing the dosage of hydrocodone, people experiencing pain might take more of it, or take it more often, than they are directed to by their doctors.
This category can include people of any age, gender, or socioeconomic level, because everyone experiences pain and its challenges at some point in their lives. The potential for hydrocodone abuse applies to everyone, and anyone who takes it, even for completely legitimate treatments, should be aware of the dangers.
The second category of people who could potentially abuse hydrocodone are those who have discovered that it can give them pleasant emotional or physical sensations, and wish to take it even when they are not in pain. Sometimes, this happens after a person has had a prescription for a true pain need, but then noticed the other pleasant effects and did not want to stop taking it for that reason, even after the pain had been managed.
Sometimes, however, a person with an authorized prescription will have friends or family members who wish to share or buy their hydrocodone pills. These are not people who need it for pain management; rather they use these prescription medications like recreational drugs, in order to feel a rush or a high. This is, of course, abuse of this potent medication, and it puts users in danger.
Side Effects of Hydrocodone
One of the reasons physicians are so careful about how much hydrocodone they prescribe is because hydrocodone can have many significant side effects. As a powerful medication, side effects can be physical, mental, and emotional.
Some of the physical side effects of hydrocodone include:
- Dryness of the mouth and throat
- Rash or itchy skin
- Constipation or inability to urinate
- Nausea and vomiting
- Light sensitivity
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness or pressure in the chest
- Liver damage
- Anxiety or panic
- Sadness or depression
- Mental fogginess
- Euphoria or an inappropriately happy mood
- Psychological dependence
- Mood swings
- Loss of emotional control
- Calm or relaxed feelings
When abused — someone taking too much or too often — the side effects of hydrocodone can be dangerously intensified. If a person takes too much hydrocodone, overdose can occur. This involves the body’s system slowing significantly, leading to coma and even death. Per the CDC, 44 people die due to overdose on prescription painkillers like hydrocodone every day in the US.
Some people use other substances, such as alcohol, marijuana, or other prescription drugs, along with hydrocodone. This practice is strongly advised against, whether the person is using hydrocodone legitimately or abusing the drug. Multiple substances can combine in unpredictable and harmful ways within the brain and body, compounding potential side effects and increasing the risk of overdose.
It’s Never Too Late to Get Help
Recognizing Hydrocodone Abuse
If you are worried that someone you love might be abusing hydrocodone, there are signs to look for.
- Is the person’s medications disappearing faster than usual?
- Has the person started getting prescriptions filled by another doctor or at another pharmacy?
- Does the person complain more about pain, despite taking more hydrocodone?
- Has the person experienced various life difficulties in a short period of time, such as failing grades, being fired from a job, or excessive fighting with a partner or spouse?
- Has the person asked you for help in getting medication to treat pain?
- Has the person taken hydrocodone in a manner that is not as intended, such as crushing and snorting the drug?
- Does the person have more hydrocodone despite not visiting a doctor recently?
- Does the person often need extra cash or spend significant time ordering things online?
If you suspect that someone you love is abusing hydrocodone, help is available. As a serious opiate drug, those who have been abusing the medication should not attempt to stop taking it on their own. Medical detox, followed by comprehensive addiction treatment, is needed. With proper care, complete recovery is possible.