Hydrocodone is an opioid medication that is used to treat moderate to severe pain. It is also used as a cough suppressant in certain formulations. Hydrocodone has a high potential for abuse, and chronic abusers can develop dependence and, eventually, addiction.
What Is Hydrocodone?
Hydrocodone is a semi-synthetic opioid drug. It is synthesized from codeine, which is an opiate substance that originates from the poppy plant. Other opioid drugs include heroin, morphine, and opium. 1
Hydrocodone acts on specific opioid receptors in the brain that are involved in the suppression of pain. Even though hydrocodone’s primary use is pain relief, it also is used in other medicinal combinations as a cough suppressant (Tussionex, Tussigon). Hydrocodone appears in combined formulations with other medications in more than 60 different drugs including Vicodin, Norco, Lortab, and others. Estimates indicate that as much as 90% of the worldwide supply of hydrocodone is in the U.S. 1
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, hydrocodone combination products with less than 15 milligrams of hydrocodone per dosage unit are classified as Schedule II controlled substances. This means that even though the drugs can be purchased legally with a prescription, they have a high potential for abuse and the development of physical dependence. 2
Abuse of Hydrocodone
Hydrocodone and other opioid medications can produce euphoria, a reduction in inhibitions, and relaxation. For some people, these effects are so pleasant that they crave opioid medications and use them to cope with everyday stressors.
Because tolerance to these drugs develops rapidly, people need to take increasingly higher doses of the drug to achieve effects similar to those that they experienced when they first started taking the drug and to stave off physically uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, which will eventually arise in chronic abusers who slow or discontinue their hydrocodone use at some point.
These problematic patterns of use can lead to a physical dependence on the drug and addictive behaviors, such as compulsively seeking out the drug and continuing to use it despite negative consequences.
Because hydrocodone is the main substance in many different drugs, street names for drugs that contain hydrocodone are often based on the name of the particular drug. Some of the street names include:
- Hydros (any pill containing hydrocodone).
- 357s, Vics, or Vicos (Vicodin).
- Lorris or Tabs (usually Lortab).
Methods of Use
It is commonly abused with other drugs, including alcohol.
Hydrocodone is most often dispensed in tablet or capsule form. However, it is also available in liquid form. Pills and capsules are most commonly used for pain relief, while the liquid form is most commonly used as a cough suppressant.1
Most people who abuse the drug either take the drug orally, grind it up and snort it, or grind it up, dissolve it in a liquid, and inject it. Opioid drugs such as hydrocodone are commonly abused in conjunction with a number of other drugs including alcohol, other painkillers, benzodiazepines, marijuana, and stimulant medications or drugs such as cocaine. Mixing central nervous system depressants such as hydrocodone with other drugs can lead to a number of serious interactions and a high potential for overdose. 1, 4
Opioid medications such as hydrocodone produce a number of short- and long-term side effects.
The primary therapeutic effect of hydrocodone is pain relief. People who take the drug will experience a decrease in physical pain or discomfort.
In addition, short-term effects can include: 4, 5, 6
- Feelings of relaxation.
- Decreased heart rate and decreased respiration.
- Loss of appetite.
- An increase in energy and mild excitement (in low doses).
Hydrocodone use is also associated with a number of side effects that include: 4, 5, 6
- Trouble urinating.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Irregular or suppressed breathing.
- Skin rashes, itchiness, and goose bumps.
- Tightness in the chest.
- Issues with memory and attention.
- Slurred speech.
- Poor decision-making and problem-solving skills.
- Drowsiness and sedation.
- Constricted pupils.
- Mood swings.
People who chronically abuse medications containing hydrocodone will experience a number of problems in different areas of their lives. These include: 4, 5, 6
- Dependence. Chronic use or abuse of hydrocodone will likely result in physical dependence on the drug.
- Addiction. Chronic abuse of hydrocodone will also likely result in the development of a moderate to severe opioid use disorder (i.e., addiction).
- Health problems. A number of health problems can occur from abusing hydrocodone. These include complications related to chronic urinary retention, constipation and gastrointestinal obstruction, and potential anoxic tissue injury from any prolonged periods of respiratory arrest.
- Liver damage. In many cases, hydrocodone is combined with other drugs, such as acetaminophen. Acetaminophen taken in large doses and over extended periods of time is associated with liver damage and other potential serious physical effects.
- Mental problems. Chronic abuse of hydrocodone can lead to cognitive issues, including the development of memory issues and possibly the development of psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety or depression.
- Social problems. Chronic abusers of hydrocodone typically develop issues with family members and friends as well as issues with their job, school work, and ability to function in social gatherings. They often become isolated and detached from others.
- Financial difficulties. People who chronically abuse opioid medications must pay for them or procure them in some way. The need to maintain a supply of these drugs often results in a number of financial problems and/or legal entanglements.
Signs and Symptoms of Addiction
Helpline Information anytime to talk to a rehab support advisor. These representatives can connect you to a treatment center based on your insurance coverage.
The common signs and symptoms used to diagnose someone with an (i.e., opioid use disorder hydrocodone addiction) are listed below. They are provided for educational purposes only. Anyone who suspects that he or she may have a substance use disorder should consult with a substance abuse professional.
His or her chronic use of the drug must have resulted in significant distress and be demonstrated by at least 2 of the following symptoms within the past year: 3
- The person repeatedly takes larger amounts of hydrocodone or takes hydrocodone over a longer period of time than he or she intended.
- The person displays a strong desire to cut down or stop using hydrocodone or has made many unsuccessful attempts to do so.
- The person spends a great deal of time trying to obtain the drug, use the drug, or recover from its use.
- The person displays strong cravings to use hydrocodone products.
- Because of his or her drug use, the person often fails to fulfill major role obligations at work, home, or school.
- Despite having recurrent issues associated with his or her drug use, the person continues to use hydrocodone.
- A number of important activities are given up or reduced significantly due to the person’s drug use.
- The person continues to use hydrocodone in situations where it is physically dangerous to do so.
- The person continues to use hydrocodone products despite knowing that his or her drug use is causing significant issues either physically or psychologically.
- The person develops tolerance to hydrocodone products.
- When the person stops using hydrocodone or reduces his or her use of the drug, he or she develops withdrawal symptoms.
Hydrocodone Overdose Symptoms
Some of the signs of hydrocodone overdose include: 4, 5, 6
- Extreme sedation.
- Issues with balance.
- Slurred speech.
- Decreased reaction time.
- Suppression of breathing.
- Decrease in blood pressure and heart rate.
- Hallucinations or delusions.
- Extreme confusion.
- Anxiety or panic attacks.
- Excessive sweating.
- Cold and clammy skin.
- Yellowish tint to the skin or to the whites of the eyes.
- Loss of consciousness.
If you suspect a hydrocodone overdose in yourself or someone else, call 911 immediately.
Overdose Risk Factors
Some of the factors that make one prone to overdosing on hydrocodone include: 3, 4, 5, 6
- Reduced tolerance at the point of relapse. Users who relapse after a period of abstinence may take a dose of the drug that they used prior to quitting. However, a period of sobriety lowers the user’s tolerance, and their system may not be able to handle their previous dose, leading to overdose.
- Mixing hydrocodone with other drugs. Combining similar drugs, such as central nervous system depressants, leads to a dangerous suppression of one’s breathing and heart rate. Combining different types of drugs, such as stimulants and central nervous system depressants such as hydrocodone, counters the physical sensations of the drug and can lead to a person taking dangerously high amounts of the drug to achieve the effects he or she seeks.
- Loss of control. Taking a drug for its psychoactive effects can result in a person losing his or her ability to judge how much of the drug he or she is taking. Users can overdose without even knowing how much of the drug they took.
Pain relievers are the largest group of abused prescription medications.
Prescription medication abuse is a growing concern in the United States. The largest group of prescription medications that are abused are prescription pain relievers, such as hydrocodone.
According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): 7
- Nearly two-thirds of people over the age of 12 engaging in the non-medicinal use of prescription drugs abused prescription pain-relieving drugs, such as hydrocodone products.
- Nearly 467,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 used prescription pain relievers for non-medicinal purposes (1.9% of this age group).
- Nearly 978,000 people between the ages of 18 and 25 used prescription pain-relieving medications in a non-medicinal manner (2.8% of this entire group).
- Nearly 2.9 million individuals over the age of 26 abused prescription pain relievers for non-medicinal purposes (this represents 1.4% of this age group).
Find Treatment for Hydrocodone Addiction
If you or someone you love needs help for hydrocodone addiction, call 1-888-319-2606 Helpline Information to speak to a recovery program placement advisor. These representatives can help you find the right program based on your needs and insurance.
. Trescot, A. M. (2016). Opioid Pharmacology and Pharmacokinetics. In Controlled Substance Management in Chronic Pain (pp. 45-62). New York: Springer International Publishing.
. United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Drug scheduling.
. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders – fifth edition. Washington, D.C.: Author.
. Doweiko, H. (2015). Concepts of chemical dependency. Stanford, CT: Nelson Education.
. Griffith, H. W. (2016). Complete Guide to Prescription & Nonprescription Drugs 2016-2017. New York: Penguin Press.
. Herron, A., & Brennan, T. K. (2015). The ASAM essentials of addiction medicine. New York: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2013) Behavioral health trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 national survey of drug use and health.
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