Understanding Hydrocodone Abuse & Addiction
Hydrocodone is a semi-synthetic opioid and widely prescribed prescription painkiller. From 2004 to 2011, hydrocodone was the most commonly prescribed medication in the United States.2 Despite their therapeutic utility, due to the reinforcing effects of opioid agonist medications in the brain, drugs like hydrocodone are commonly misused for nonmedical purposes. Misuse of a drug like hydrocodone can increase one’s risk of developing significant physical dependence and addiction. A Schedule II substance, hydrocodone has high abuse liability and can lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.4
What is Hydrocodone Used For?
In its various formulations, hydrocodone is prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain.3 Some combination products that include hydrocodone are prescribed to treat cough.4 Hydrocodone acts on the opioid receptors in the brain to change the perception of pain. In addition to its analgesic effects, hydrocodone is also associated with dose-dependent sedation and euphoria.4 These reinforcing euphoric effects make hydrocodone highly susceptible to being abused.
Other Names for Hydrocodone
Brand name drugs that contain hydrocodone include Anexsia, Lortab, Norco, Vicodin, and Zohydro. Different formulations of hydrocodone may be administered as tablets, in oral solution, or as extended-release capsules. Hydrocodone is commonly found in combination products with other analgesics (e.g., acetaminophen) as well as antihistamines or anticholinergics to manage pain and cough.5
Who is at Risk of Hydrocodone Addiction?
Even when used to treat pain, the rewarding euphoric effects of hydrocodone may reinforce its continued use and potential misuse. Continued misuse of the drug—including taking higher-than-prescribed doses, continuing to use the drug beyond a prescribed period of time, combining it with alcohol or other drugs, or crushing pills to bypass a time-release mechanism, if present—can increase the risk of eventual addiction development.
What are the Side Effects of Taking Hydrocodone
Like many prescription medications, hydrocodone can have some adverse short-term and long-term side effects. Side effects associated with hydrocodone use can range from mild to life-threatening, depending on the dose used.
Side Effects of Hydrocodone Use
Immediate effects of hydrocodone use include analgesia, feelings of euphoria, and sedation. 4 Hydrocodone use may also be associated with some potentially serious side effects, which may be more likely as doses escalate. Other potential side-effects of hydrocodone include:3
- Stomach pain.
- Dry mouth.
- Nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite.
- Muscle tension.
- Back and neck pain.
- Sexual dysfunction.
- Irregular menstruation.
- Urinary changes (e.g., difficulty with, pain with, or increased frequency) .
- Slowed breathing.
- Slowed heartbeat.
- Diminished level of consciousness.
- Physiological dependence (and withdrawal, should the drug be stopped abruptly).
Hydrocodone and Drinking
You should never mix hydrocodone and alcohol due to a potential amplification of certain dangerous side effects, such as cardiovascular and respiratory depression. Taking hydrocodone and alcohol in tandem could result in severe and possibly life-threatening side-effects, such as:3
- Severe drowsiness.
- Slowed or stopped breathing.
- Dangerously slowed heart rate.
- Loss of consciousness.
Hydrocodone overdose, whether it occurs in conjunction with alcohol use or not, is a medical emergency. Left unmanaged, opioid overdoses can result in respiratory arrest, coma, and death. If you suspect an opioid overdose, call 911 immediately.
Signs of Hydrocodone Addiction
Addiction—or in more clinical terms, a substance use disorder (SUD)—is a diagnosis made based on the presence of a variety of characteristic symptoms, signs, and behavioral changes associated with compulsive substance use. The symptoms and signs of hydrocodone addiction can manifest as both physiological and behavioral changes. Some of these signs of hydrocodone addiction may not be easy to spot, and loved ones should be attentive to changes in their loved one’s physical, cognitive, or behavioral wellbeing.
Physical Signs of Hydrocodone Addiction
Due to their preoccupation with obtaining the drug, an addicted person’s physical appearance is often neglected. Forgoing personal hygiene is one potential outward sign of hydrocodone addiction (though not one of the official diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder). Other examples of this might be unhealthy or unexplained weight loss, dental problems, and lack of personal grooming (unkempt hair, dirty clothes, dirty skin). Additional physical signs of a potential hydrocodone addiction include the intermittent presence of opioid withdrawal signs, which manifest when a continued supply of hydrocodone or other opioid drug might not be available: 7
- Runny nose.
- Intense cravings.
Behavioral Signs of Hydrocodone Addiction
Behavioral signs of hydrocodone addiction can be harder to spot. While there is no universal behavioral signifier for addiction, there are some changes to look out for. Possible behavioral changes characteristic to addiction may include:8
- Forgoing responsibilities at home, work, or school.
- Social withdrawal.
- Problems meeting school and/or work obligations
- Quitting recreational activities and other previous hobbies.
- Relationship problems.
- Using larger quantities than prescribed.
- Preoccupation with obtaining the drug.
Using the drug in hazardous situations, such as operating machinery or driving.
Hydrocodone Withdrawal: Can I Quit On My Own?
Withdrawal is a term that refers to a person’s psychological and physiological response when they stop taking a drug. Hydrocodone withdrawal symptoms may include:9
- Muscle aches.
- Dilated pupils.
- Runny nose.
- Yawning and fatigue.
- Stomach cramping.
These symptoms can begin within hours after one stops taking an opioid drug, and can last for several days. While they are generally not life-threatening, medical detoxification has helped many people navigate this otherwise difficult stage by ensuring a safe and comfortable withdrawal experience.
Are You Struggling with Hydrocodone Addiction?
Do you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself or a loved one in connection with problematic or compulsive hydrocodone use or misuse? Are you looking for help but unsure where to start? If you answered yes to either of these questions, you should consider hydrocodone addiction treatment for yourself or your loved one.
American Addiction Centers Can Help
As the leading addiction treatment provider in the United States, American Addiction Centers focuses on not only treating the addiction itself, but the causes that led to its development. At American Addiction Centers, treatment is specialized to meet the needs of each person.
There are 8 treatment centers across the country, making it easier to access care. We are located in the following states:
To learn more about how American Addiction Centers can help, you can call our free helpline 24/7 to speak to an admissions navigator.
Still Unsure About Seeking Treatment?
If you are still unsure about how treatment works, how to ask for help, or how to get treatment, consider the following guides:
- National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). NCI dictionary of cancer terms.
- Molina, D.K. & Hargrove, V.M. (2011). What is the lethal concentration of hydrocodone?: A comparison of postmortem hydrocodone concentrations in lethal and incidental intoxications. The American Journal of Forensic Medicine & Pathology 32(2):108-111.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2019). Hydrocodone.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Compound summary: Hydrocodone.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2019). Hydrocodone.
- Younger, J.W., Chu, L.F., D’Arcy, N., Trott, K., Jastrzab, L.E., & Mackey, S.C. (2011). Prescription opioid analgesics rapidly change the human brain. Pain 152(8):1803-1810.
- Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Opioid addiction.
- Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5 (5th ed.). (2013). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2018). Opiate and opioid withdrawal