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Hydrocodone is a synthetic opioid drug that is used to treat pain. The drug acts on neurotransmitter sites in the brain that are involved in the suppression of the experience of pain.
Hydrocodone is primarily used in the relief of pain but does also occur in formulations as a cough suppressant. Hydrocodone is a Schedule II controlled substance, indicating it has a high potential for abuse and addiction.
Hydrocodone is a commonly prescribed drug in the United States. Estimates have indicated that over 90 percent of the worldwide supply of hydrocodone is in the US. It appears in combination with other medications in over 60 drugs, such as Vicodin, Norco, and Lortab.
Aside from being a narcotic (pain reliever) and cough suppressant, taking hydrocodone products can result in some relatively common side effects that include:
All narcotic medications carry the potential for the development of physical dependence. Physical dependence to a drug occurs as a result of two processes: tolerance and withdrawal.
Tolerance is a relatively common effect of taking any drug or medication for a significant period of time. As one takes the drug over a lengthy period, the body becomes habituated to the effects of the drug, and the person will require a higher dose of the drug to achieve the same effect that was achieved at lower doses. Tolerance can be a significant problem when individuals are taking drugs that have serious risks associated with their use.
Physical withdrawal occurs with only certain types of substances. This is a result of the body learning to operate efficiently only when the drug is in the system. When the drug is stopped and the levels of the drug in the system begin to decline, the body loses its sense of homeostasis or balance. There are disruptions in the levels of hormones, neurotransmitters, and other important substances that are experienced when the individual stops taking the drug. Severe physical withdrawal symptoms occur for drugs like alcohol, opioid medications, benzodiazepines, and a few others.
It is important to quickly mention the distinction between physical dependence and addiction. Individuals who take medications that contain hydrocodone for any significant period of time risk potentially developing a physical dependence on the drug. Just having physical dependence on a drug does not necessarily signify that the individual has a substance abuse problem or addiction issue. For instance, people who suffer from severe chronic pain due to physical injury or as a result of disease may take medications with hydrocodone in them for very lengthy periods of time. These people will often become physically dependent on the drug. As long as they use the drug under the supervision of their physician and according to the specifications of their prescription, these individuals are not considered to have substance abuse issues or substance use disorders (addictions).
Addiction represents a chronic disordered condition where individuals engage in the nonmedical use of some type of drug (e.g., taking it to get “high” as opposed to relieving pain) and their use of the drug leads to a number of issues with functioning. Thus, addiction represents misuse of a drug, and it may or may not include the syndrome of physical dependence, whereas just being physically dependent on a drug does not indicate that one has an addiction.
The length of hydrocodone withdrawal symptoms and their intensity will depend on a number of factors, including:
Because of these intervening factors, it is virtually impossible to outline a specific timeline for withdrawal from hydrocodone or any other opioid drug. In general, the timeline for withdrawal will occur over a few days to a week to 10 days; however, in some instances, withdrawal may last weeks or months. The process often looks like this:
Going through withdrawal from hydrocodone is not considered to be physically damaging or potentially fatal in the same way that alcohol withdrawal can be physically damaging; however, anyone experiencing the distressful effects of withdrawal is at risk for accidents and self-harm.
As with all opiates, medical detox is recommended for hydrocodone withdrawal. There are several reasons for this, including:
Medical detox should always be followed with complete addiction treatment. Individuals who do not get involved in a treatment program after undergoing the physical withdrawal process are at a very high risk for relapse even after they complete detox.