Vicodin is an opiate-containing pain reliever, which is only legally available on prescription. It contains the opiate hydrocodone and the milder painkiller acetaminophen, which together work to manage moderate to severe pain. While the drug is legitimately used to manage short-term pain following a serious injury or a surgical or dental procedure, if used in the long-term to manage more chronic pain, it is possible to become addicted to Vicodin owing to its opiate content. Alternatively, people who use hydrocodone-containing drugs recreationally to receive a high are also at risk of addiction. Despite concerns about its addictive nature, use of hydrocodone-based drugs is on the increase, and the only opiate more commonly used is oxycodone.
According to figures by the FDA, an estimated 2.2% of adults in the US are prescribed opioid analgesics, with more than 4 million people using them on a regular basis. Opiates are commonly used by older adults, so as the Department of Health and Human Services explains, they are one of the groups at greatest risk of prescription drug abuse and owing to the difference in their metabolism and health, they may be more vulnerable to adverse Vicodin effects.
Effects of Vicodin
Just like other opiates, the hydrocodone component of Vicodin attaches to opiate receptors in the body, which are located in your brain and spinal cord. This attachment not only blocks the sensation of pain, but also triggers feelings of euphoria by enhancing brain levels of dopamine. Opiate drugs are able to increase production of this feel-good chemical by reducing the release of another messenger, known as GABA, which usually inhibits the release of dopamine. These pleasurable feelings encourage users to repeat the experience, whether using the drug for legitimate purposes or with the intention of achieving a high.
Pain relief and extreme positive feelings are not the only effects Vicodin has. As with any medication, using Vicodin has some potential side-effects, and while not everyone experiences these, if you are taking large doses frequently (as may occur if you have developed a reliance on the drug), you are more likely to suffer from these. Among the adverse effects listed by drug database Drugs.com are:
- Feeling dizzy
- A skin rash
- Nausea, vomiting or altered stools
- A rapid pulse
- Breathing and swallowing difficulties
Chronic use of opiates can also lead to other problems, some of which may have a lasting impact on your health. While addiction is one of these, according to an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the other long term effects of Vicodin include tooth decay, reduced bone density, chronic constipation, an obstructed bowel, lowered immune function and a heart attack. While careful monitoring of opiate use can minimize these risks to health, with the unchecked use of Vicodin during abuse, the likelihood of these increases.
As Vicodin also contains acetaminophen, which can sometimes cause liver damage, yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes should never be ignored, as this is a sign of jaundice.
The impact that hydrocodone has on your brain’s reward system explains why Vicodin is addictive. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains, the flood of dopamine that your brain receives activates the reward circuit, which is designed with the intention of encouraging us to repeat positive experiences beneficial to us. However, opiates hijack this system, encouraging us to take more of the drug without even having to think about it. With repeated use of Vicodin, your brain receives less dopamine, so feelings of pleasure are reduced and this encourages you to take increased doses of Vicodin to achieve the same mental boost. After this stage of tolerance, if drug taking continues, long-term changes occur to your brain cells, which further reinforces your habit.
One of the dangers of addiction and the need to take increasing amounts of Vicodin is this places you at risk of an overdose. Indeed, prescription drug overdoses are far more common than those for illicit drugs and are responsible for more deaths. This is supported from data published by the CDC, which shows that almost 15,000 people die annually in the US from prescription opiate overdoses. Signs of a Vicodin overdose include pinpoint pupils, reduced or loss of consciousness, an irregular pulse, and reduced or absent breathing. With these symptoms emergency medical care is essential if you are to receive the opiate antidote, naloxone, in time.
Besides the adverse health effects of addiction, forming a Vicodin habit can also take its toll on many areas of your life. You may find that it impacts on your studies or employment, your relationship with those close to you, your interests and your finances. Over time your addiction becomes your sole focus, so everything that was once important to you falls by the wayside, which can lead to your dropping out of college, losing your job, losing touch with family and friends, and financial difficulties as you try to sustain your costly habit.
The only way to free yourself from your dependency on Vicodin is to take part in an opiate withdrawal program followed by a stint of rehabilitation. As you will find if you try to wean yourself off this painkiller, it is not easy to do so alone owing to the opiate withdrawal symptoms you experience. However, with the support of addiction professionals, you greatly increase your chances of giving up prescription painkillers for good.
Among the withdrawal symptoms you can expect to experience following chronic Vicodin abuse are:
- Feeling anxious, agitated and low in mood
- Difficulty sleeping
- Sweating and goose bumps
- Nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea
- Muscle soreness
How long cravings for Vicodin and the signs of opiate detox last for depends on how heavily you have been using the drug and for how long. While these symptoms will not place you at any danger, they are difficult to manage, so a medical team is able to prescribe treatments that may help you to cope better as you deprive your body of Vicodin. With their assistance you are in a better position to beat your addiction.
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