What is Vicodin?
Vicodin is a popular opioid as it combines the active ingredient hydrocodone with acetaminophen, a common pain management ingredient found in over-the-counter medications like Tylenol. However, it’s important to keep in mind that even milder pain management drugs like acetaminophen can be dangerous when taken in large quantities and/or continuously for long periods of time. Acetaminophen has been linked to liver failure in multiple studies, and is especially dangerous for children when not taken as prescribed.
Vicodin and other hydrocodone drugs are considered narcotic analgesics, which work by affecting the central nervous system. Consequently, if Vicodin is abused, a person can become both physically and mentally dependent on the drug.
It is currently estimated that in the U.S., about 116 people die every day from opioid-related incidents, including those involving Vicodin. Hydrocodone—which is very versatile and can be found in tablet, capsule, syrup or other liquid forms—is prescribed more often than more dangerous opioids like fentanyl. Millions of people have been prescribed Vicodin at some point in their lives, usually after a surgery such as wisdom tooth extraction. Those who take Vicodin might feel euphoric, and this effect—sometimes coupled with a feeling of relaxation and/or sedation—makes it easy to see why the drug can become habit-forming. What aren’t always easy to see, however, are the signs of abuse and addiction.
Side Effects of Vicodin
Even though addiction to narcotic painkillers is well-known, these drugs are still being over-prescribed and abused. Unfortunately, those who are truly in need of pain management drugs for chronic conditions are struggling to find solutions that are non-habit-forming. Too often, people are prescribed dangerous and addictive drugs to treat long-term or lifelong pains. With Vicodin, abuse is two-fold. Users are abusing both hydrocodone and acetaminophen, which doubly endangers the body.
Slowed breathing is a common side effect of opioids like hydrocodone, because the drug acts as a depressant, but when taken in excess or over long periods of time, death by stopped breathing can occur. Heart damage is also possible. Furthermore, Vicodin users also face the risks of liver damage and organ failure as a result of acetaminophen poisoning.
Vicodin in the Body
Vicodin is so effective because it mimics natural opioids that the human body produces on a much smaller scale. The body has opioid receptors, and that’s what these drugs attach to. These receptors are in charge of managing stress and pain by numbing the nerve impulses that cause these feelings within the central nervous system. Opioids and opiates stop these messages from reaching the brain, which is why pain should be felt, but is not. In other words, the cause of the pain is still there, but painkillers simply inhibit the messenger.
It’s important to remember that the term “painkiller” is (or at least should be considered) a misnomer. The correct term for a “painkiller” is pain management or pain relief drug. Pain, to some degree, is a good thing in most cases. It’s the body’s way of signaling that something is wrong and that the cause should either be addressed or the body should rest so as to not further any damage. In rare instances, the body gets pain signals mixed up and sends messages to the brain warning of pain when in reality, there isn’t any. Again, these conditions are not common.
Vicodin and other opioids also affect dopamine release in the brain. Dopamine is what naturally makes us feel good. It’s a neurotransmitter located in the limbic system in charge of our emotions, reward system, and moods. Vicodin releases more dopamine into the brain, as do many feel-good drugs. Still, dopamine can also be released in other ways. The “runner’s high” many athletes report having is actually caused by a dopamine release. Eating chocolate can also release dopamine. As you can deduce, dopamine release is another feeling to easily get addicted to.
However, Vicodin is more than a drug that causes a “high”—it’s also a sedative. When pain signals are blocked from the spinal cord to the brainstem, a numbness sets in. The resulting state is a seemingly perfect balance of euphoria and calmness, and in order to keep achieving this feeling, Vicodin users often have to take more and more of the drug, increasing their dosage beyond what they are prescribed. This is when abuse can begin.
Vicodin and other hydrocodone drugs were created specifically to manage pain. The dopamine rush—the more addictive component of the drug—is ironically an unintended side effect. Vicodin nourishes the body’s reward system, and with every use the patient might feel the desire to increase their dosage in order to get that same level of reward. It does not take long for someone to become addicted to Vicodin, and with every increase in dosage, the future withdrawal symptoms may become more severe.
Signs of Vicodin Abuse
In the early stages of Vicodin addiction, the warning signs can be tough to spot. Often, the user is truly in pain and might be behaving differently because of an injury, and it’s easy to overlook milder signs of abuse such as moodiness. After all, anyone would be moody if they were recovering from surgery. However, as abuse increases, the signs get more obvious.
Some of the most common early signs of addiction are depression and vision problems. The user might experience an increase in pain sensitivity, anxiety, severe mood swings; you might notice very small pupils. In some cases, liver problems or jaundice might occur.
The most obvious sign that you might observe is the user’s lack of control when it comes to taking their medication—say, observing them taking the drug in excessive amounts. In this case, they will likely deny their abuse either to hide their addiction or because they truly do not realize how much they have been taking.
Relationships are a struggle for any addict. A Vicodin addict whose priority is getting their fix is no exception. Someone who used to be reliable may suddenly become flaky. They might become more anti-social. You might catch them “doctor hopping” or going to various pharmacies to fill multiple Vicodin prescriptions. They might even ask you if you have any old painkillers—and they are often armed with many excuses as to why they “need” more Vicodin.
Their performance at work or school may begin to suffer, and you might notice that they start having money trouble or are unable to handle simple daily tasks.
Vicodin withdrawal, whose symptoms can sometimes resemble those of addiction, can start within hours of a person’s last Vicodin fix. The severity of the symptoms will depend on how long the individual has been abusing the drug for and their level of addiction. A tolerance will have been built up, and they may be able to take very high doses of Vicodin without the same kind of side effects a non-addict could manage.
Detox (ridding the body of toxins) and treatment should only be undertaken at a medically supervised facility. Trying to detox at home with just friends and family is dangerous to both the addict and their loved ones.
Only a medical facility has the resources, expertise, and capacity to handle the more serious withdrawal symptoms, which may include: loss of consciousness; difficulty breathing; extreme confusion; and severe pain, largely due to the person having numbed themselves from pain for so long. It is even possible for an individual going through Vicodin withdrawal to fall into a coma.
Furthermore, acetaminophen withdrawal can happen concurrently, and when an individual is addicted to two drugs, the symptoms can be even more dangerous. Acetaminophen withdrawal symptoms may include: diarrhea; vomiting; liver failure; dehydration, which can be deadly and cause organ failure; excessive sweating; and convulsions.
Antidotes and additional treatment options for managing withdrawal symptoms are available in medical settings.
If you or a loved one is addicted to Vicodin, it’s very important to seek immediate medical help. If you notice signs of an overdose, call 911. All first responders carry Narcan, a type of opioid antidote, which can be life-saving. (The U.S. consumes 99 percent of all Vicodin prescriptions, and there are more than 140 million prescriptions written every year.)
There are numerous therapy approaches that can help Vicodin addicts, and many insurance policies cover drug addiction treatment. The first step in treating any drug addiction is detox. Detox for Vicodin can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks, though most addicts metabolize their toxins in about seven days. In a medical detox environment, the addict often moves on to a longer treatment plan, but this only occurs when the patient wants help.
Severe addiction might call for a residential program, which would provide the most support and help treat the root of the addiction. Through workshops and skill-building series, such programs help addicts pinpoint their triggers and learn coping techniques, and can provide patients with the tools they need to avoid relapsing in the future.
Still, even after a Vicodin treatment plan, be it inpatient or outpatient, there remains a risk of relapse. Given that Vicodin is so readily available and accessible, it’s easy for an addict to return to their habit.
Overdose can occur seemingly out of nowhere. Some addicts are very highly functioning, while others have not been abusing the drug for long.
Surprisingly, it is more likely that a person will overdose on acetaminophen rather than the opioid aspect of Vicodin.
If you or someone you know is using Vicodin, there is a high risk of addiction. Be on the lookout for signs of abuse, and get help immediately if you suspect addiction has taken hold. Help is available, and the earlier it is sought, the better. It is possible to recover from Vicodin addiction, but it is rarely possible without medical intervention.