Hydrocodone is an opioid used in prescription pain relievers. It can be prescribed on its own, but it’s often combined with other non-narcotic drugs. The most common hydrocodone prescription in the U.S. is Vicodin, which combines hydrocodone and acetaminophen.
While hydrocodone is a useful medication, it is an opioid, which means it has some potential for abuse, dependence, and addiction. Substance use disorders involving prescription opioids often lead to illicit drug use, significantly increasing your risk of an overdose.
Hydrocodone overdose can be dangerous and life-threatening. What are the symptoms, risk factors, and prevention methods for hydrocodone overdose? Learn more about hydrocodone overdose and treatment options.
How Does Hydrocodone Work?
Like most opioids, hydrocodone bonds with the pain receptors in the brain. It mimics the opioids our bodies naturally produce and floods the brain and central nervous system with excessive opioids.
Our natural opioids are neurotransmitters that inhibit (slow down) the central nervous system signals that let the brain know the body is in pain.
When hydrocodone activates the brain’s opioid receptors, they are stimulated into overproduction. This slows down the activity in the central nervous system and creates stronger pain blocks around the brainstem and spinal cord, leading to effective pain relief. Hydrocodone also creates a powerful sense of relaxation and sedation and significantly boosts dopamine production.
Dopamine is connected to what is known as the pleasure center in the brain. It controls emotions, cognition, and how the brain processes feelings of pleasure. By increasing the dopamine levels in the brain, hydrocodone creates the feeling of euphoria known as a high. As the brain learns to associate hydrocodone with pleasure, dependence and addiction will soon take root.
What Causes Hydrocodone Overdose?
Hydrocodone overdose can occur when you’re taking high doses of the drug or when you mix it with certain other substances. For the most part, hydrocodone is safe to use as directed by a doctor, but if you use it for too long, it can cause chemical dependence and addiction. But if you use it in high doses, it can lead to serious overdose symptoms like loss of consciousness, slow heart rate, slow breathing, coma, and death.
An overdose occurs when you take more hydrocodone than your body can process safely. For many drugs, an overdose can lead to toxicity, which is when the drug damages a part of your body, like your heart, brain, or liver. Opioid overdose is caused by the drug’s effects on your central nervous system. Opioids are not depressants, but they share similarities. They can slow down activity in your brain and nervous system, which is what causes them to have relaxing effects.
However, high doses can slow down important functions of your nervous system that are unconscious. Your nervous system manages your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and other functions without you thinking about them. High doses of hydrocodone can slow or stop these functions. For the most part, deadly overdoses are often caused by respiratory depression, which is when your breathing slows down or stops. It can lead to oxygen deprivation, brain damage, and death.
Several circumstances could lead to an overdose. Recreational opioid use often leads to overdoses. Hydrocodone is a prescription drug, but if you buy it illegally, it could contain many other additives, including potent opioids like fentanyl.
What Are the Risk Factors for Hydrocodone Overdose?
Anyone who misuses or abuses hydrocodone can experience overdose symptoms and even dangerous overdoses. However, some risk factors may increase your potential risk of encountering an overdose. Opioid overdoses have occurred in all age groups, including older adults. However, they are very common among younger adults between ages 18 and 35. Hydrocodone is a prescription drug, but people with a history of opioid use and abuse are more likely to encounter an overdose.
Other risk factors can include:
- A history of substance abuse
- Mixing it with other medications
- Using opioids daily for a long time
- Using illicit opioids
- Getting hydrocodone from illicit sources
- Increasing your dose over time
Developing a chemical dependence or addiction to hydrocodone can significantly increase your risk factors for an overdose. Opioid use disorders often lead to the use of illicit substances. Illicit opioid use is inherently dangerous and may cause you to encounter more dangerous substances than hydrocodone, like fentanyl, an extremely potent synthetic opioid.
Adolescent Overdose Risk
While opioid overdose is most common in young adults between ages 18 and 24, it’s a significant problem among adolescents between the ages 12 and 17. In 2020, 116,000 adolescents began to misuse prescription pain relievers like hydrocodone, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Around 80,000 adolescents had an opioid use disorder in 2020.
Men and Women
Opioid overdose is common in men and women, but they experience opioid use problems with some differences. Women report pain symptoms more readily than men and take more opioids on average. Men are less likely to report pain and receive opioids than women, but when they misuse opioids, they are more likely to die in overdoses. However, a 2017 review found that opioid overdose was an increasing problem among women.
Older adults tend to go through more medical care, and they are more likely to take prescription drugs. However, older adults also process drugs more slowly, which can lead to more side effects or more severe side effects, including overdose.
Signs and Symptoms of Opioid Overdose
Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between a very strong high or an overdose. If you’re not sure whether the person needs help, the best course of action is to treat the situation like an overdose.
During a high, the person may:
- Appear out of it, but be responsive to external stimuli, such as a loud noise
- Scratch themselves because their skin feels itchy
- Experience muscle weakness
- “Nod out,” or go in and out of consciousness
- Have slurred speech
- Have small pupils
If you’re concerned the person may be getting too high, be sure to stay by their side. If they’re still conscious, keep them awake, monitor their breathing, and be on the lookout for the signs of an overdose:
- Conscious but unable to communicate
- Body is limp
- Lips and nails turn blue or purplish black
- Face becomes pale and clammy
- For those with lighter skin, the skin turns bluish purple, and for those with darker skin, it turns gray
- Slow, shallow, erratic breathing or breathing has stopped
- Unresponsive to external stimuli
- Loss of consciousness
- Pulse is slow, irregular, or not there at all
- Sound of choking or gurgling noise, also known as the “death rattle”
If someone is making strange noises while unconscious, try to wake them up. Many people mistake it for snoring when the person is actually overdosing. This could be an opportunity to intervene and save the life of a loved one.
How Dangerous Is Hydrocodone Overdose?
Hydrocodone is a potent prescription drug that can cause severe symptoms during an overdose. But can a hydrocodone overdose be deadly? Prescription opioids can cause life-threatening overdose symptoms when they are taken in high doses. When hydrocodone is taken in high doses or when it’s used with other substances like alcohol, it can slow down important parts of your nervous system.
An opioid overdose can cause your heart rate and breathing to slow down. You may also pass out or have trouble staying awake. Fatal opioid overdoses often involve respiratory depression, which is when your breathing and heart rate slow down to a dangerous degree.
You may be more likely to experience fatal respiratory depression if you mix hydrocodone with other substances, including alcohol, benzodiazepines, or other opioids. However, hydrocodone is capable of causing a fatal overdose on its own if you take a high enough dose.
How Is Hydrocodone Overdose Treated?
Though a hydrocodone overdose can be serious, it can be treated. However, it’s important to act quickly. A severe overdose can be deadly or lead to lasting medical problems if treatment isn’t administered in time. Since someone experiencing an opioid overdose may pass out or struggle to maintain consciousness, it’s often up to others to call for emergency services or administer treatment.
If you notice the signs of an overdose, it’s important to seek medical attention right away. Don’t leave the person. Instead, try to keep them calm and sitting upright. If they lay down and you can’t get them to sit up, roll them onto their side.
A hydrocodone overdose can be treated by a drug called naloxone, which is sometimes sold over the counter as Narcan. First responders also carry this drug most of the time. Naloxone is able to bind to opioid receptors in the brain. Unlike hydrocodone, naloxone is an opioid receptor antagonist, which means that it binds to receptors and blocks their activity.
Not only does this prevent more opioids from binding to receptors, but it also kicks off any opioids that are currently causing the overdose. This will quickly stop an overdose in its tracks. However, it may also send an opioid-addicted person into opioid withdrawal. Still, opioid withdrawal symptoms aren’t deadly like an opioid overdose.
Someone who experiences a hydrocodone overdose may have an opioid use disorder. In such cases, you may need to speak to a doctor about addiction treatment. Treating an opioid use disorder may be the best way to avoid an overdose in the future.
What Are the Signs of Hydrocodone Addiction?
Hydrocodone addiction can significantly increase your risk of an opioid overdose. Opioid use disorders are hard to overcome, especially if you go through them on your own. However, recognizing the signs of hydrocodone addiction and seeking treatment could mean avoiding a dangerous overdose.
Opioid prescription use problems may begin with normal prescription drug use. Opioids are often taken without any serious problems, but long-term use can lead to chemical dependence, which can make it difficult to stop. When prescription drugs become too difficult to get or too expensive, many people turn to illicit opioid use.
Opioid use disorders may be difficult to spot in the early stages. However, as the problem grows, you may start to see more and more signs as the problem grows. Early opioid use problems may be seen to cause typical opioid side effects, which may include the following:
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Mood swings
One of the major hallmarks of addiction is the continued use of a drug despite the consequences that are caused by the use of that drug. Addiction is identified through compulsive actions. That means hydrocodone use is out of control. You may use the drug compulsively, even if you want or need to stop using it. You may experience compulsions in the form of powerful urges to use opioids and drug cravings. When cravings occur alongside uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, opioids can become extremely difficult to resist, especially on your own.
Addiction is also a progressive disease, which means it can get worse over time, especially if a person doesn’t receive treatment for it. Addiction can get in the way of your occupational and social functioning, which means it might affect your work, school, and relationships. It can also jeopardize your health and financial stability.
Identifying a substance use disorder in yourself or someone else is often the first step before getting the help you need to address addiction. There are several common signs of addiction. It may be difficult to see these signs in yourself, especially in the early stages, but you might observe them in someone else. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists 11 common signs of addiction, which include:
- Taking more of the drug than you intended to in one sitting.
- Trying to cut back or stop without success.
- Cravings to use hydrocodone or other opioids.
- Spending more and more of your time finding, using, and recovering from opioids.
- Struggling to meet obligations at work, home, or school because of drug use.
- Using despite consequences in your relationships.
- Giving up activities that were important to you to use drugs.
- Using drugs in a way that puts you in danger.
- Continuing to use despite physical or psychological problems that are made worse by drug use.
- Needing higher doses to overcome a growing tolerance.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit.
The severity of your substance use problem can be determined by the number of the above 11 symptoms you experience. Two or three symptoms is considered a mild opioid use disorder, four or five is moderate disorder, and six or more is a severe disorder. Besides the DSM criteria for addiction, there are several common signs you might be able to notice, including:
- Lying about or hiding hydrocodone use.
- Doctor shopping to get more prescriptions.
- Buying illicit opioids.
- Unexplained medical, legal, or financial problems.
- Social isolation.
- Taking hydrocodone just to feel normal (not recreationally or therapeutically).
- Neglecting personal hygiene.
- Stealing to pay for opioids.
- Depression or anxiety problems.
If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, you may have a substance use problem that will only get worse if it is ignored. While addiction is a chronic and progressive disease, it can be treated. Addiction treatment can help you avoid or address some of the severe consequences of substance use problems.
What Is Involved in Hydrocodone Addiction Treatment?
Hydrocodone addiction treatment starts with a supervised medical detox to clear all traces of hydrocodone from the body. This helps those in recovery become physically and mentally stable. Like most opioids, hydrocodone withdrawal symptoms are not considered nearly as life-threatening or dangerous as other drugs, such as benzodiazepines.
That being said, hydrocodone detox should never be attempted without the help of a medical professional. This will help to prevent a mid-detox relapse or other potential complications. A medical professional can also utilize a medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to slowly dwindle someone’s hydrocodone usage by swapping in weaker opioids and then dwindling those down as well.
Once the detox process has been completed, and the withdrawal symptoms are passed, it’s crucial to enroll in an addiction recovery program that provides long-term care. Detoxing on its own is not enough to overcome a hydrocodone addiction. Inpatient or outpatient treatment must also be utilized to equip the person with the coping skills needed to manage their addictive impulses and behaviors. If the person forgoes ongoing treatment, they are almost guaranteed to relapse.
How Dangerous Is Hydrocodone Withdrawal?
It’s a common misconception that hydrocodone is safer to abuse because it’s a prescription medication, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sometimes, frequent use can be all it takes for someone to become addicted to hydrocodone.
People often mix opioids like hydrocodone with alcohol. This not only increases the risk of an overdose but can cause serious harm to the kidneys and liver. Opioid addiction should be treated with the same urgency as a terminal illness, in which early detection is crucial to survival.
The addiction cycle created by opioids makes it incredibly difficult to quit. A red flag of a developing hydrocodone abuse issue or addition is withdrawal symptoms. While not life-threatening, withdrawal symptoms can be painful. Hydrocodone withdrawal produces three stages of withdrawal symptoms, which can last seven to ten days. However, the discomfort they experience may push someone to reuse, and the cycle starts all over again.
As sensitivity to the drug increases and tolerance decreases, those addicted to hydrocodone are at risk of overdosing. If you’re experiencing hydrocodone withdrawal symptoms or are struggling with an addiction, it’s important to seek help and treatment as soon as possible.