Developed in 1995, OxyContin – which contains the active ingredient oxycodone – is an opioid pain medication that, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, is time-released for individuals with moderate to severe chronic pain. The medication is a Schedule II controlled substance, meaning that it can only be obtained with a prescription and is considered to have a high risk for dependence.
OxyContin is safe when taken as prescribed, but individuals who abuse it do so to experience a high from the oxycodone. They may crush and inject or snort, or even chew the tablets, so the medication is released at once. The desired effect may include pain relief, euphoria, and relaxation.
Other than the fact that OxyContin can become addictive when abused, individuals can experience many other negative side effects from taking the drug, including:
- Dry mouth
- Constricted pupils
- Difficulty with breathing
- Increased sensitivity to pain
- Rapid or irregular heart rate
When taken improperly, OxyContin affects the reward center of the brain by causing a flood of dopamine, the neurotransmitter linked to pleasure. Individuals who abuse OxyContin will also quickly build up a tolerance, meaning that they will need to take more of the drug to achieve the desired effect. This tolerance, as well as the impact on the brain’s reward center, causes individuals to become dependent on the drug.
Some individuals choose to combine OxyContin with other drugs, not realizing that doing so can cause deadly consequences. Combining it with alcohol or other depressants can cause respiratory depression, which can lead to death. Combining it with stimulants, such as cocaine or prescription stimulants, can cause a stroke or heart attack.
Tolerances and dependence may also lead to an unintentional overdose. Overdoses can lead to death, so it’s important to act promptly and immediately call 911 if one is suspected. Signs of an OxyContin overdose include:
- Slow and difficult, shallow, or absent breathing
- Pinpoint pupils
- Bluish tinge to fingernails and lips
When OxyContin is abused, there are other negative effects that those close to the individual may notice. Individuals may begin to experience mood swings, including anger, depression, irritability, and hostility. Memory problems may develop, as well as damage to the liver and kidneys. Weight loss can occur, along with nausea and/or vomiting.
Individuals who abuse OxyContin for a long period of time may take extreme – and illegal – steps to obtain the medication. These steps can include doctor shopping, in which individuals visit different doctors to obtain prescriptions so they are not questioned; forging prescriptions; stealing OxyContin or stealing money to buy it illegally; and repeatedly visiting the emergency room for pain. Individuals may also isolate themselves from friends and family so their dependence and OxyContin abuse are not detected.
As with other substances, OxyContin abuse can affect virtually every part of an individual’s life. Those who abuse the medication may experience financial problems due to having to pay for the medication illegally. Their interpersonal relationships may begin to deteriorate. They may experience legal issues if they are arrested in connection to the illegal purchase – or sale of – OxyContin tablets.
Injecting OxyContin, after crushing the pills and mixing them with water, poses additional risks. Individuals may become infected, or infect others, with blood-borne diseases like HIV or hepatitis if they share needles. Some individuals who abuse prescription painkillers like OxyContin – around 75 percent as reported by the American Society of Addiction Medicine – may even switch to heroin, as it is a cheaper alternative.
Can Abuse Be Prevented?
An article by Popular Science reports that in 2010, OxyContin tablets were changed in an attempt to make them harder to abuse. The makers formulated a tablet that is nearly impossible to crush or dissolve in water. When individuals attempt to crush the newer OxyContin tablets, they find that they are no longer able to crush them, and that it is impossible to mix the medication with water for injection, as it simply forms a gummy substance.
This change was in response to a large number of deaths linked to prescription opiate abuse. The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that in that year alone, there were 16,651 overdose deaths due to prescription opioid painkillers. The changes led to a decline in OxyContin abuse of almost 41 percent, according to a study published in the Journal of Pain for the American Pain Society. That being said, abuse of OxyContin still continues despite the new formulation as individuals still ingest large doses of the medication.