Last Updated: September 15, 2023
Although hydrocodone is an opioid that carries the risk of abuse and addiction, recovery is possible with different treatment methods.
Hydrocodone is a common opioid prescribed in the U.S. and is often used for pain. However, as a controlled substance, it carries an increased risk of abuse, dependence and addiction. For this reason, it is important to be aware of the side effects of hydrocodone use if you or a loved one take the medication.
What Is Hydrocodone?
Hydrocodone is an opioid pain reliever and is often prescribed in a combination pill with acetaminophen and was previously sold under brand names like Vicodin, Lorcet, Lortab and Norco. The drug is also available on its own under brand names like Hysingla ER and Zohydro ER. Doctors prescribe hydrocodone for moderate to severe pain that requires an opioid. When sold in combination with the antihistamine chlorpheniramine, hydrocodone is also sometimes prescribed for cough.
How Does Hydrocodone Work?
Like other opioids, hydrocodone works by binding to opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord. In turn, your perception of pain is reduced. The drug also acts on the cough center in your brain stem to stop coughing.
What Are the Common Side Effects of Hydrocodone Use?
Hydrocodone’s common side effects include:
However, more serious side effects can occur, especially if the drug is taken at higher than recommended doses. These side effects can include extreme sedation, slowed breathing and even seizures. The risk of serious side effects can worsen if you have certain medical conditions like poor kidney function or mix hydrocodone with other medications, especially central nervous system depressants like benzodiazepines.
To avoid side effects on hydrocodone, you should take the drug exactly as prescribed and discuss any concerns with a healthcare provider.
What Are the Short-Term Effects of Hydrocodone Use?
When you start taking hydrocodone, you may experience side effects like dizziness, sedation, nausea/vomiting and constipation. However, other effects are also possible, especially if you:
- Take more hydrocodone than prescribed
- Take hydrocodone more often than prescribed
- Mix hydrocodone with other depressants like benzodiazepines
In those cases, you may have more severe hydrocodone side effects like central nervous system depression, which can put you at risk of an overdose. Symptoms of central nervous system depression include:
- Slowed breathing
- Small pupils
- Slow heartbeat
- Severe drowsiness
- Limp muscles
- Severe dizziness
- Cold, clammy skin
- Bluish lips or nails
A hydrocodone overdose is a medical emergency. If you suspect someone is having a hydrocodone overdose, you should administer naloxone (Narcan) if available and call 911 immediately.
Because hydrocodone is a Schedule II controlled substance, addiction is a risk, even if you have only been taking the drug for a short time.
Because hydrocodone is a Schedule II controlled substance, it carries a high risk of abuse, addiction and dependence. These can occur because of how hydrocodone impacts the central nervous system, triggering the reward system in the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain. This triggering of the reward system causes a person to want to repeatedly take the drug, becoming physically and mentally reliant on it over time.
Substance abuse is also closely linked with mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Some people may start to rely on drugs like hydrocodone to self-medicate their preexisting mental health problems, while other people may develop mental health issues while taking the substance.
Even if a person wants to quit hydrocodone once you become addicted to the drug, it can be very difficult to do so on your own. Withdrawal symptoms from stopping the drug can be challenging to manage without help. Symptoms include:
- Muscle pain
- Trouble sleeping
- Increased tear production
- Runny nose and eyes
- Enlarged pupils
- Abdominal cramps
- Nausea and vomiting
Fortunately, withdrawal symptoms can be eased and managed with a medically supervised detox program, which may include medication-assisted treatment if medically appropriate. Following medical detox, rehab can then help support you in your long-term goal of starting a new, hydrocodone-free life.
How Does Hydrocodone Addiction Develop?
Addiction is a complicated phenomenon that can develop over time. When someone is addicted to a substance, they become physically dependent on the drug, and their brain adapts to the drug’s presence. Over time with regular use, the brain starts to expect the drug, leading to unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when it is not taken.
A person can also become psychologically dependent on hydrocodone, using the drug as a coping mechanism for mental health conditions and life stress.
For these reasons, it is vital to ensure that you only take hydrocodone exactly as your doctor prescribes and you do not take more of the drug than prescribed or take it more often than prescribed. In addition, it is important to talk to your doctor about treating any underlying mental health conditions you might have.
What Are the Signs of Addiction?
Signs of hydrocodone addiction include:
- Taking more hydrocodone or for a longer period than intended
- Unsuccessful attempts to cut down on hydrocodone
- Spending a lot of time seeking, using or recovering from hydrocodone
- Cravings for hydrocodone
- Failure to fulfill obligations at work, school or home due to hydrocodone
- Social or interpersonal problems stemming from hydrocodone use
- Giving up other activities because of hydrocodone
- Taking hydrocodone even when it is physically dangerous to do so
- Continuing to take hydrocodone even though you know it is harmful to you
- Needing increasing amounts of hydrocodone to achieve the same effects as before
- Withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop hydrocodone
Although not every person will show every sign of hydrocodone addiction, more than one sign means that you should consider seeking professional help. Hydrocodone recovery is possible with the right support.
Can Hydrocodone Addiction Be Treated?
Hydrocodone addiction is treatable. The first step in hydrocodone recovery is medical detox, in which your body is cleansed of hydrocodone. If medically appropriate, medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine or methadone may help ease withdrawal symptoms and avoid cravings and relapse.
Following medical detox, the hard work of rehab begins. In rehab, you participate in therapy to explore why you started to rely on hydrocodone and learn healthier coping mechanisms. In dual diagnosis treatment, underlying mental health conditions can also receive treatment to help support your recovery.
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Hydrocodone Addiction?
Over the long term, a continued hydrocodone addiction can severely affect your life. Consequences can include:
- Financial problems from addiction
- Problems getting or keeping a job or housing
- Relationship and interpersonal problems
- Legal problems from addiction
- Mental health problems
Fortunately, with assistance, recovery from hydrocodone addiction is possible through treatment options like medical detox, medication-assisted treatment and support groups.
The Risks of Misusing Hydrocodone
Misusing a drug means you are not taking it in a way consistent with your doctor’s orders. This may mean:
- Taking hydrocodone to get high
- Mixing hydrocodone with other substances to enhance its effects
- Taking hydrocodone that has not been prescribed to you
Misusing hydrocodone carries many risks, including physical dependence, addiction, overdose and serious side effects. For these reasons, you should avoid taking hydrocodone that has not been prescribed for you, and you should only take the drug exactly as intended when it is prescribed to you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can hydrocodone interact with other medications or supplements?
Hydrocodone has drug interactions with many different medications, most notably central nervous system depressants like benzodiazepines which can increase the risk of overdose. For this reason, you should always make sure your doctor and pharmacist know about all other medications, vitamins, supplements and over-the-counter treatments you take while on hydrocodone.
What should I do if I experience side effects while taking hydrocodone?
If you have side effects while on hydrocodone, you should inform your prescriber as soon as possible. If you experience a serious side effect, like slowed breathing or other overdose symptoms, you should seek emergency medical attention and inform your prescriber.
What Is naloxone, and how does it relate to hydrocodone use?
Naloxone (Narcan) is an opioid-reversal agent that can reverse an opioid overdose. Emergency workers like police and paramedics carry naloxone, and your doctor can prescribe it. In some states, naloxone is available over-the-counter without a prescription. Many doctors will prescribe naloxone alongside an opioid prescription to help you avoid an accidental overdose.
Can I take hydrocodone while I am pregnant?
You should discuss taking hydrocodone with your OB/GYN before using the drug while pregnant. Opioids are generally avoided during pregnancy; however, your doctor may decide that the benefit outweighs the risk in certain circumstances.
Can I breastfeed while taking hydrocodone?
Experts believe it is best to avoid hydrocodone while breastfeeding. Opioids, in general, should be avoided when possible if breastfeeding due to the risk of passing the drug to the baby via breast milk.
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