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OxyContin Addiction and Side Effects

OxyContin, the brand name for the drug oxycodone, is a Schedule II drug meaning it has a high potential for abuse and is only available with a prescription, an opiate painkiller that is often prescribed for individuals with moderate to severe pain. It is known by other names, such as oxy, OC, oxycotton, hillbilly heroin, Orange County, and kickers.

Though it has a high addiction potential, OxyContin is safe when it is taken as prescribed by a physician, but it is very frequently abused. Even regular use can produce dependence.

Abuse of OxyContin

When taken as directed, an OxyContin tablet slowly releases the medication, and the effect of pain relief usually lasts around 12 hours. When individuals abuse it, they often crush it, causing the medication to release into the body immediately, which is what causes the euphoria that individuals who abuse OxyContin are looking for. Some individuals may take OxyContin for pain relief, but there are also individuals who may take it to curb withdrawal symptoms from heroin or other opiate drugs, or even as a substitute when heroin is not available.

OxyContin is meant to be ingested orally; however, some individuals crush or chew the pills before swallowing, crush pills and snort the powder, or crush pills and dissolve the powder in water for injection. Aside from facing potential overdose, individuals who inject drugs face other dangers, such as transmission of HIV, hepatitis, and other diseases from using contaminated needles and equipment. Due to the increase in individuals crushing OxyContin for abuse, the manufacturer reformulated the medication. The newer medication is almost impossible to successfully crush, and, when immersed in water, it turns into a jelly-like substance.

Some users may take OxyContin with alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs to enhance the high, but this can be a fatal combination. Individuals may also take OxyContin with stimulants, such as amphetamines, cocaine, and meth, in an effort to counteract side effects of the stimulants. If individuals can’t sleep as a result of stimulant use, they may take OxyContin in an effort to mellow out and get some sleep. Combining substances increases the likelihood of overdose. For example, when used together, OxyContin and stimulants can cause a heart attack.

The Center for Substance Abuse Research states that even though OxyContin is sometimes seen as a “white collar” addiction, its use has risen in all ethnic and economic backgrounds. In 2010, opioid painkillers – including OxyContin – contributed to the overdose deaths of 16,651 individuals, proving the large role that opiates play in deaths caused by overdose. According to the CDC, 44 people fatally overdose on prescription painkillers every day.

OxyContin’s Effects on the Body

OxyContin works by triggering certain opioid receptors in the brain, causing a flood of dopamine – the “pleasure chemical.” This is what creates the feelings of euphoria and also teaches the user to repeat the drug use to achieve the same effect. Eventually, the brain slows down its dopamine production, which makes it hard for the user to enjoy not only the OxyContin, but also other events or situations in life that are associated with pleasure. Now, users feel that they need to continue using OxyContin to make up for the dopamine the brain is no longer producing – and in order to continue to achieve a high. The brain has also changed the individual’s priorities, motivating the person to spend time and money seeking out and using OxyContin.

There are multiple side effects that individuals can experience after using OxyContin. Some of the most common side effects include:

  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Sexual difficulties
  • Itching
  • Weakness
  • Constipation
  • Hypotension
  • Headache

Some of the less common side effects of OxyContin include loss of appetite, abdominal pain, dysphoria, diarrhea, and urine retention. Injecting OxyContin can cause even more issues, such as endocarditis (inflammation of the inner lining of the heart), scarred veins, sepsis, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B and C, and arthritis. Using OxyContin during pregnancy can cause miscarriage, premature birth, stillbirth, an addicted newborn, and a greater risk of sudden infant death syndrome, also known as SIDS.

If an individual has begun abusing OxyContin, there are certain behaviors that may be exhibited:

  • Strained personal relationships
  • Lying to others about OxyContin use
  • Neglecting responsibilities at home, work, and school
  • Hiding OxyContin use
  • Borrowing or stealing money from loved ones
  • Borrowing or stealing OxyContin from loved ones
  • Financial problems
  • Visiting multiple doctors to obtain OxyContin prescriptions
  • Forging prescriptions

Long-term physical effects from OxyContin can include liver damage, breathing problems, respiratory failure, seizures, heart attacks, unintentional overdose, coma, and death.

If an individual has overdosed on OxyContin, the following symptoms may be exhibited:

  • Difficult or slow breathing
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Fainting
  • Dizziness
  • Narrowing or widening of pupils
  • Cold, clammy princess
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Coma

If overdose is suspected, emergency services should be called immediately.

OxyContin Addiction

Repeated use of OxyContin can lead to a tolerance, meaning that the individual will need to keep increasing the dose in order to achieve the same effect from the drug. As this happens, not only does the risk of overdose increase, but the individual is also likely to become addicted.

Addiction, by definition, is a chronic brain disease in which relapse has the potential to happen often. It causes individuals to seek out OxyContin even if use has caused personal consequences as well as ill effects to others. Changes to the brain make it difficult for the individual to stop, as addiction rearranges the individual’s priorities, making using OxyContin the greatest need.

Individuals may have become dependent on OxyContin if they spend so much time and money on drug use that their careers and personal lives begin to suffer, and if they experience withdrawal symptoms after not taking OxyContin for a short amount of time.
OxyContin dependence can affect many parts of an individual’s life, causing effects such as:

  • Loss of relationships
  • Divorce
  • Job loss
  • Homelessness
  • Child and domestic abuse


When an individual has become physically dependent on OxyContin, attempting to quit taking the drug can cause a multitude of withdrawal symptoms. Some of these include:

  • Flu-like symptoms: runny nose, watery eyes, etc.
  • Bone and muscle pain
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Chills
  • Panic attacks
  • Restlessness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Fever
  • Cramps

OxyContin withdrawal should be completed under the care of medical professionals. As with all opiates, OxyContin withdrawal requires medical detox in a professional setting.

Help for OxyContin Dependence

If an individual needs help for OxyContin dependence, the person can rest assured that recovery is an attainable goal. If the individual is concerned about privacy, the law requires that any health-related information pertaining to a person cannot be shared without written consent from that person. In fact, even the individual’s employer cannot be given the exact medical diagnosis that has been give to the individual.

If a person has been using OxyContin according to a doctor’s prescription but has become dependent on the drug, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is addicted to the substance. In this instance, the person should consult the prescribing physician regarding slowly tapering off the drug and seeking out alternative pain management means.

If it’s determined that an addiction is present, comprehensive addiction treatment is required. Most treatment plans consist of medical detox followed by therapy. Medical detox addresses the physical component of addiction whereas therapy addresses the psychological aspects of addiction.

Finding a Treatment Facility

If treatment is recommended, the next decision is to choose the treatment center best fitted to the particular individual’s needs. Each facility should have one goal in mind: helping the individual overcome OxyContin dependence and learn to live in a healthy manner that doesn’t involve substance use. In order to be successful, individuals must remain in treatment long enough to achieve the maximum benefit.

First and foremost, it must be determined if the facility’s program is successful and has evidence of such. The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that effective treatment programs include behavioral therapy and possibly medication – if indicated. Behavioral therapy can help the individual seek out and change their drug-related behaviors. Coping skills will be taught to help the individual learn to deal with any triggers that may arise.

Each individual in treatment should have a specialized treatment plan. A treatment plan that is created for an individual who is attempting to quit smoking will not have the same effect on an individual who is attempting to recover from OxyContin dependence. Further, treatment plans should address the individual as a whole, not only the OxyContin dependence. While the severity of the OxyContin addiction is an important factor, the individual may also need mental health services for a dual diagnosis, medical services, occupational skills training, parenting support, and more. Even if the individual presents only with OxyContin addiction, screening for a mental health diagnosis should be completed as well, as co-occurring mental health issues are common with opiate abuse and addiction.

As an individual moves through a treatment program, the individual’s needs change. What was needed at the very beginning – such as medication for withdrawal symptoms or intensive therapy to identify the root causes behind the addictive behavior – may not be needed a week or a month later. Therefore, treatment plan reviews should be completed on a periodic basis, as well as performed on an as-needed basis if circumstances drastically change. For example, drug monitoring for relapse prevention would not necessarily apply toward the onset of treatment, while the individual is in an inpatient setting, but it may be needed after the individual has been discharged.

If individuals are promised a treatment program that can help them fully recover in a very short period of time, it is right to be wary. Recovery is a long, often lifelong process, so promises of a “cure” or “quick fix” cannot be made. There is no cure for addiction.

If an individual’s treatment plan ends prematurely, the individual has a greater risk of relapse. The longer the individual adheres to treatment, the lower the risk of relapse. However, relapse does not mean that the individual has failed. It simply means that the treatment plan needs to be reinstated or reevaluated.

Many treatment programs may include participation in Narcotics Anonymous or another 12-Step program. This provides individuals with peer support that can help them to stay on the path of recovery. The peer discussion that takes place in such programs allows individuals to give each other ideas on how to stay sober and offers a forum of support if an individual has an episode of relapse. These groups are also useful after individuals have been discharged from the inpatient portion of treatment; in fact, some treatment programs require self-help group attendance as part of an individual’s aftercare plan.

Other Factors to Consider

While the overall treatment approach is the most important factor in choosing an OxyContin addiction treatment center, other factors come into play as well.

Most addiction treatment facilities accept some forms of health insurance, and health insurance plans often cover at least part of the cost of treatment. If you have a particular facility in mind, there is likely an insurance specialist on staff who can discuss coverage specifics with you. You can also contact your insurance company directly to determine the specifics of your policy.

If treatment is not covered by insurance, or if insurance doesn’t cover the full cost, discuss other financing options with the treatment facility. Oftentimes, payment plans with low interest rates are a possibility.

Location is another important factor to considering when choosing a treatment facility to treat OxyContin addiction. There are pros and cons to choosing a facility close to home or one further away from one’s home environment. If the person opts for care close to home, family members and close friends can take a more active role in the person’s recovery, attending therapy sessions or participating in family activity days. At the same time, if the person opts to get care at a facility far from home, it may mean fewer distractions, allowing the person to fully focus on the recovery process.

Moving Forward

Regardless of what facility is chosen, anyone struggling with OxyContin addiction should know that real recovery is possible. The first step is simply acknowledging that help is needed and reaching out for that help.

About The Contributor
Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff, American Addiction Centers
The editorial staff of Greenhouse Treatment Center is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed... Read More