Vicodin has become one of the first medications that comes to mind when thinking about prescription drug addiction. Vicodin is in the same class of intoxicant as morphine and heroin as an opioid – a substance derived from the opium poppy plant. It’s fast-acting and has a high potential for addiction. When used for a long enough period of time, it can cause serious health problems. Because of this, getting treatment for Vicodin addiction as soon as possible is extremely important.
Vicodin is a strong painkiller often prescribed for individuals to take after surgery or for severe pain issues, including chronic pain. Its effectiveness quickly led it to become one of the top most prescribed prescription painkillers in the United States. The fact that it can produce a euphoric high and other pleasant sensations led it to become one of the most abused medications, with recreational use and abuse getting so bad that the Drug Enforcement Administration upgraded it from a Schedule III controlled substance to Schedule II, making it more difficult to obtain from doctors.
The main ingredients in Vicodin are hydrocodone and acetaminophen. Both are painkillers, with hydrocodone being the addictive component. In both 2009 and 2010, hydrocodone was the second most frequently found opioid drug in evidence lockers of local, state, and federal forensic labs. Acetaminophen is nonaddictive and generally safe in low doses, but in high doses, it has been connected to intestinal damage and liver failure. This dangerous combination led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel to vote to advise the administration remove Vicodin from the market altogether in 2009.
Who Abuses Vicodin?
Abuse of a prescription drug is defined as any intentional use outside of what a doctor has ordered. Taking more than the prescribed dose, mixing the drug with other intoxicants, or taking it without a prescription are all examples of abuse.
Nonmedical use of prescription drugs has become incredibly common, with the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimating that 20 percent of Americans age 12 and older have used medications in this manner at least once. In 2010, the organization found that one in 12 high school students had used Vicodin recreationally in the past year. Vicodin abuse is more common among younger age groups, including high school students. After marijuana, Vicodin is the most commonly abused drug by high school students. Death from opioid painkiller overdose, however, was found to be most common among the 45-54 age group.
Chronic pain conditions, of course, also contribute to the risk for abuse, though not all who take Vicodin on a long-term basis will become addicted. Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with and prescribed opioid pain medication for chronic pain. Estimates of how many chronic pain patients have an addiction to painkillers vary widely, but the fact that many of them can’t get through the day without an opioid simply because the pain is so bad puts them at a special risk for addiction, even if they take the medication as directed.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, painkiller overdose deaths shot up by 400 percent from 1999 to 2010. Non-Hispanic white women, American Indian women, and Alaskan Native women are at the highest risk.
Signs of Abuse and Addiction
Vicodin typically produces a relaxing effect, making the user sleepy and reducing anxiety and tension. In some cases, it can have the opposite effect, acting as a stimulant and increasing productivity or causing anxiety.
All opioids depress the central nervous system, which controls the respiratory system and heart. This means that Vicodin causes the heartbeat to slow down and breathing to get slower and shallower. At a certain point, this can become very dangerous. When too much is taken at a time, an individual can stop breathing altogether.
Common effects of Vicodin include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Clouded thoughts
- Mood swings
- Slowed heart rate
- Suppressed breathing
- Difficulty urinating
Euphoria in particular tends to only occur when an individual is taking more than the recommended dose. Though abuse does not always lead to addiction, it raises the likelihood of physical and psychological addiction. Psychological addiction is considered to be an emotional need for the drug – when a person feels that something is wrong without it and constantly preoccupied with the substance.
Physical addiction occurs when the body and brain begin to adjust to the drug. This condition can be identified by the presence of withdrawal symptoms when the substance leaves the body. Not all drugs cause physical withdrawal, but Vicodin does.
Symptoms of Vicodin withdrawal include:
- Runny nose
- Muscle aches
These symptoms typically last for about five days. The worst symptoms tend to occur during the first 24-48 hours. Psychological cravings and long-term health issues can continue for many years, even cropping up for the rest of a person’s life.
There are other general signs of addiction that one can look out for. This includes changes in social circles, neglecting personal hygiene or appearance, secretive behavior, increasing failure to meet responsibilities, and other unexplained changes in behavior. Any of these can point to addiction in individuals taking an addictive substance like Vicodin. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 9.3 percent of people need treatment for an alcohol or illicit drug abuse problem, so it’s highly likely that everyone knows someone who struggles with substance abuse or addiction.
Due to the fact that there is a large amount of acetaminophen in Vicodin, abuse of this drug is especially hard on the liver. Individuals addicted to Vicodin can expect to experience damage to the liver, jaundice, and eventually liver failure if treatment isn’t sought. Constipation and difficulties with urination can cause intestinal problems and urinary tract infections, up to and including kidney infections, which can be deadly. Long-term Vicodin use can also lead to depression as the brain begins to have trouble producing pleasurable feelings on its own.
Additionally, the acetaminophen in Vicodin carries the potential for rare but serious skin reactions. The FDA recently warned consumers taking any form of acetaminophen about the risk of Stevens-Johnson syndrome (SJS) and toxic epidermal necrolysis (TEN). Both of these are dangerous conditions that often require hospitalization due to the rapid, mass amounts of skin death that can leave the afflicted individual vulnerable to severe, life-threatening infection. The FDA found 107 cases of this reaction from 1969 to 2012, but due to the risk of death from these conditions, this is enough to be a cause for concern.
The more immediate risk of Vicodin abuse is overdose. The risk of death during an overdose of any opiate is high, especially if mixed with other depressants like alcohol. Signs of a Vicodin overdose should be met with immediate medical attention.
Symptoms of a Vicodin overdose include:
- Pinpoint pupils
- Low blood pressure
- Difficulty breathing
- Very shallow breathing
- Bluish lips and/or fingertips
- Weak pulse
Weak pulse and shallow breathing can quickly lead to hypoxia, which is when not enough oxygen is getting to the brain for it to function properly. If medical attention isn’t sought soon enough, brain damage or death can occur. According the Journal of the American Medical Association, opioid painkillers were responsible for 16,651 deaths in 2010. The high amount of acetaminophen in Vicodin can also cause significant liver damage. When mixed with alcohol, acute liver failure is more likely.
There is already a strong set of research for the treatment of opioid addiction due to the fact that it’s been a problem for so long. The fight against morphine and heroin addiction has led to the development of a number of treatment options that work quite well for prescription opioid dependence.
There are medications designed specifically to treat opioid addiction. Drugs like Suboxone contain both a less potent and addictive opioid, and a drug that blocks opioid receptors in the brain, but only if it’s activated by crushing the pill to snort or inject the resulting powder – a common practice for abuse purposes. The opioid buprenorphine stays in the body for much longer and does not produce the same kind of euphoria that drugs like heroin and Vicodin do, making it significantly less addictive. Those who are addicted to Vicodin can therefore be switched onto buprenorphine and have their dose gradually reduced over time, softening or eliminating withdrawal symptoms as well as cravings.
If medicated treatment is not an option, it’s highly recommended that an individual check into a hospital or addiction treatment center before stopping intake of Vicodin. The withdrawal symptoms associated with this opioid can be extremely unpleasant, and it can be very tempting to go back to Vicodin just to make these symptoms stop. In medically supervised detox, medical professionals are on hand during the entire process to administer medication for nausea, anxiety, aches and pains, and any other bothersome sensations.
After detox, it’s highly recommended that an individual go through an inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation process. Inpatient rehabilitation, often referred to as rehab, involves staying in a facility for several weeks. No intoxicants are allowed on the premises, and clients learn how to cope with cravings, temptations, and life stressors that can make it more difficult to stay sober. With outpatient programs, clients continue to live at home, but they come to the treatment center daily or multiple times per week for therapy, classes, and/or support group meetings.
After rehabilitation is complete, addiction is not cured. Addiction disorders are considered to be lifelong mental illnesses, and sober individuals with these disorders are referred to as being “in recovery.” Studies have shown that the severity of an addiction disorder often increases when treatment stops. While the symptoms may be at their highest before treatment, and at their lowest during treatment, they tend to rise after treatment, though not to pre-treatment levels.
Relapse can, and often does, occur throughout life, but this doesn’t mean that treatment has failed. The individual may simply need to re-enter a rehabilitation program or therapy. Attending support group meetings for the rest of an addicted individual’s life can significantly reduce the chance of relapse. Loving support is often one of the best predictors of staying in recovery long-term and living a productive, happy life.