Vicodin is a prescription painkiller that combines acetaminophen and hydrocodone. The drug hydrocodone is an opioid painkiller, and due to its potential for addiction, it is classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule II controlled substance. Acetaminophen is the active painkilling and fever-reducing ingredient in many over-the-counter medicines for colds or headaches, like Tylenol.
Vicodin is typically prescribed as a short-term treatment for moderate or severe pain, such as pain from broken bones or after surgery. In some countries, it is also prescribed to suppress serious coughs. Since it is a semisynthetic opioid medication, the hydrocodone in Vicodin can cause euphoria and become addictive.
There are several side effects from taking Vicodin, whether a person becomes addicted to the drug or not. However, people who struggle with addiction to Vicodin, or who abuse Vicodin recreationally, are more likely to suffer side effects from the drug because of the larger amount ingested.
Physical Side Effects of Vicodin Abuse
Physical side effects from Vicodin range from temporary effects associated with taking the medication as directed to long-term damage to the body’s organs from ingesting large amounts of the medication.
- Dizziness or loss of coordination
- Loss of appetite
- Tiredness or sleepiness
- Fear or anxiety
- Extreme constipation
- Difficulty urinating
- Difficulty staying awake or an inability to wake up
- Slowed heart rate
- Reduced, irregular, or slowed breathing
- Liver damage
- Kidney damage
- Heart problems
- Slowed or irregular breathing
- Confusion, memory problems, or memory loss
- Seizures or convulsions
- Coma or death as a result of overdose
Brain damage and damage to other organs can occur as a consequence of lack of oxygen. If a person experiences consistently reduced breathing as a result of a Vicodin high, or as a result of an overdose on the medication, then neurons can die as a result of hypoxia.
Although many medications can damage the liver, those that have acetaminophen as an active ingredient are more likely to cause damage to this organ. Because Vicodin has acetaminophen, taking too much of this medication can cause serious damage to the liver as it fails to process all of the drug. Doses exceeding 4,000 mg per day can lead to liver problems or failure.
Tolerance to and Dependence on Vicodin
People who abuse Vicodin for a long period of time can develop both a tolerance and a dependence on the medication. These conditions are different. Tolerance occurs when the body gets used to the drug and needs a larger dose to achieve the same original effects, such as euphoria or pain reduction; dependence occurs when the body needs the medication to feel normal. These both involve changes to the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, and although they are not the same as addiction, they often occur alongside addiction to Vicodin.
- Anxiety about where the next dose will come from
- False sense of wellbeing due to intoxication
- Mood swings
- Aggression or agitation when friends or family ask about Vicodin use
- Poor decision-making
- Changes in sexual arousal or interest
Many of these changes are associated with addiction to Vicodin.
Addiction to Vicodin as a Side Effect of Abuse
People who abuse Vicodin in order to achieve the euphoric “high” associated with hydrocodone are more likely to become addicted to, develop a tolerance to, or form a dependence on the drug. As stated, tolerance, dependence, and addiction are not the same, but they are often intertwined.
Hydrocodone is a drug derived from opium, so the brain can develop an addiction to and dependence on the drug. Like other opioids, Vicodin releases “happy” neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. This leads to a sense of euphoria, or a “high,” which many people find addictive. The brain can also become dependent on this medication to release these neurotransmitters to feel normal or stable. People who have struggled with other addictions in the past, such as alcohol abuse, are more likely to struggle with opioid addiction, so it is important for people who receive a prescription for Vicodin to discuss their past history of addiction or substance abuse with their doctor.
The most common symptoms of Vicodin addiction are the inability to stop taking the drug and strong cravings for the medication. When a person struggles with addiction, they need help to stop taking Vicodin and to find better coping mechanisms to deal with cravings later. Addiction treatment programs work with the individual to end their physical use of the drug, and, with therapy, help them understand and overcome psychological symptoms of addiction.