Hydrocodone is a prescription opioid painkiller, which is listed as a Schedule II drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Many drugs in the Schedule II category are opioid medications because they have an important medical use to treat serious pain, but they are also very addictive. Like some other prescription opioids, hydrocodone is derived from morphine, which is synthesized from opium.
As with other prescription painkillers derived from morphine, hydrocodone can be addictive. While most people safely take hydrocodone to treat pain from injury or postsurgical pain, many have abused their prescription or stolen it specifically to get high. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that there were 91 overdose deaths in the United States every day in 2015 due to opioid abuse, and hydrocodone abuse contributes to this problem.
This opioid drug can cause serious side effects, including constipation, changes in appetite, excessive sleepiness or drowsiness, headaches, intoxication, and dependence. While a few side effects may occur when hydrocodone is taken as prescribed, these are more likely to begin if the drug is abused. If side effects are ignored due to addiction, they will worsen over time. People who struggle with hydrocodone abuse are at risk of suffering chronic illnesses.
Chronic Physical Harm from Hydrocodone
There are several physical and psychological changes that can occur with many years of hydrocodone abuse. Chronic physical problems associated with long-term hydrocodone abuse include:
- Cardiovascular damage: Some studies have associated hydrocodone abuse with weakened heart muscles and heart failure.
- Gastrointestinal problems: About 25 percent of those taking prescription hydrocodone experience nausea. Other stomach problems include cramping and bloating. This may cause one to eat less and take more of the opioid to feel better; over time, this can lead to malnutrition.
- Malnutrition: Those who abuse hydrocodone are likely to experience reduced appetite and may neglect their diet.
- Chronic constipation: About 45 percent of people who are prescribed hydrocodone experience constipation. Over time, this can become chronic and may damage the intestinal tract. Treatments include stool softeners and laxatives, but those struggling with addiction to hydrocodone are less likely to seek medical treatment for constipation.
- Oxygen deprivation: Chronic opioid abuse has been linked to sleep apnea, which can cause oxygen deprivation. Some studies have found rates of sleep apnea to be as high as 75 percent in those who take prescription hydrocodone for six months or more. Additionally, opioid drugs like hydrocodone suppress breathing, which can deprive the body and brain of a small amount of oxygen over time; this condition is called hypoxemia. It can cause harm to all major organs, including the brain.
- Hormonal changes: Harm to the thyroid and pancreas can lead to emotional and behavioral changes due to hormonal fluctuations. Reduced levels of hormones can trigger depression. Hydrocodone abuse can also change sex hormones, like estrogen and testosterone, which reduces fertility and changes mood.
Mental and Behavioral Damage from Hydrocodone
Mental and emotional harm caused by long-term hydrocodone abuse may include:
- Hyperalgesia: Abusing opioid drugs like hydrocodone paradoxically increases the brain’s sensitivity to pain, which can lead to difficulty managing pain from other injuries, surgeries, or chronic illnesses later in life.
- Cognitive Impairment: Long-term, addiction can change the shape of structures in the brain, which can make thinking and learning harder.
- Addiction, tolerance, and dependence: Misusing or abusing hydrocodone can cause the body to become physically dependent on the drug while also decreasing the drug’s effectiveness, leading to tolerance. After taking more and more specifically to get high and avoid withdrawal symptoms, addiction can take hold.
Ending Long-Term Problems Caused by Hydrocodone Abuse
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), about 1.9 million people in the US struggled with opioid addiction, including addiction to hydrocodone, in 2014. Since then, that number has grown, and many people now struggle with heroin or fentanyl abuse. Over 80 percent of those who now struggle with heroin addiction began abusing prescription opioids like oxycodone or hydrocodone. They may already suffer from chronic health problems, which will get worse with time.
Taking hydrocodone as directed can reduce the risk of dependence and withdrawal symptoms; it also means that one can receive immediate care for side effects, like constipation or nausea, to reduce the risk of chronic health problems. However, people who struggle with addiction are more likely to develop serious problems over the long-term.
Fortunately, medications like buprenorphine can be prescribed to ease the body off opioid dependence and end hydrocodone abuse. Professional help from addiction specialists to safely detox and change one’s behaviors around intoxicating drugs like opioids can reduce or reverse chronic health problems related to such abuse.