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Hydrocodone, a semi-synthetic opioid, is rather addictive — yet millions of people are prescribed it each year. How can you recognize the signs of addiction, and what treatment is available?

Hydrocodone is the most commonly prescribed opioid painkiller in the United States. It's also, as has become painfully obvious, rather addictive. People can become dependent on the painkiller both after their doctor told them to take it and after seeking it out illicitly. Once you're it its grip, it's not easy to liberate yourself from hydrocodone — but help is available. 

What is hydrocodone?

Hydrocodone is a semi-synthetic opioid painkiller used to treat moderate to severe pain that can't be alleviated with the help of less heavy painkillers. It also acts as a cough-suppressing medication (antitussive). Hydrocodone is the opioid painkiller doctors in the US prescribe most often — every year, roughly 100,000 prescriptions are offered for hydrocodone and medications that contain it. Available under well-known brand names like Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet-HD, Hysingla, and Vicoprofen, medications containing hydrodone can come in both short- and long-acting forms, on their own or in combination with other drugs like acetaminophen (Tylenol). 

Anyone who is prescribed hydrocodone should have a serious discussion with their doctor, and consider:

  • That hydrocodone is addictive. Your risk of becoming addicted is higher if you have a personal or family history of addiction, but anyone can find themselves struggling to get off opioid painkillers.
  • Whether any non-opioid options would also meet your needs without carrying the same risk. 
  • That hydrocodone is not safe in combination with certain other medications and can't be used by people with some medical conditions — make sure your doctor knows exactly what else you're taking (including OTC drugs) and what the state of your health is. 
  • Hydrocodone can have side effects, including serious ones. Ask your doctor about your risk. 

How can you become addicted to hydrocodone?

Basically — by using it. Once your body adapts to the presence of the drug, you will need more and more to achieve the same effect. Stopping it abruptly will lead to withdrawal symptoms. 

Some people who become addicted were first prescribed hydrocodone for legitimate medical reasons, but it's also not uncommon to seek the drug out on the black market for recreational purposes. Abuse of the drug takes place among people of all ages, with the Drug Enforcement Administration being especially concerned that increasing numbers of US high schoolers are using it as a street drug. 

Besides dependence and tolerance, overdose is the main concern. An overdose can cause breathing problems, seizures, low blood pressure, coma, and even death. 

What are the signs of a hydrocodone addiction?

Since hydrodocone belongs to the opioid family, people abusing the drug and those whose misuse has crossed the line into addiction can be diagnosed with an "opioid use disorder" under the fifth edition of the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. They'll have at least two of the following characteristics, and perhaps many more:

  • A person with an opioid use disorder — in this case misusing hydrocodone — is likely to take the opioid in question in higher doses, and more often, than they planned. 
  • They may try to cut down on their use but ultimately fail to do so. 
  • Opioid addicts spend a lot of time using, trying to obtain, or recovering from using, the opioid in question.
  • Addicts will experience cravings. 
  • An addict's use may hinder their ability to meet their responsibilities in life, whether socially, at school, or at work.
  • Despite social or relationship problems resulting from their addiction, an addict will continue to use the opioid. 
  • Addicts may give up on work or social activities to spend time using.
  • They may take opioids in circumstances under which it is dangerous. 
  • Addicts may have continue to use despite being aware that their drug abuse is causing them physical or mental health issues. 
  • They have developed a tolerance, and as such no longer get the same effect from using the same amount, or start using more to get the same effect. 
  • When they stop, they go into withdrawal. This is marked by symptoms like a depressed mood, nausea, vomiting, muscle aches, excessive sweating, fever, and dysfunctional sleep. 
Addiction is a chronic — and often progressive — disease. It isn't a choice. Though a person may have initially decided to take hydrocodone for recreational purposes, they don't choose to be held in its grip. Someone addicted to opioids like hydrocodone cannot simply quit, even if they want to, and should be medically supervised to safely taper down, as well as receiving the support they need to stay off the drug. 

How can a hydrocodone addiction be treated?

Have you realized that you're addicted to hydrocodone, or want to help someone else who is? To stop using this opioid safely and maximize your odds of staying clean in the long run, it is best to seek medical attention. Physically, doctors will suggest gradually tapering down to keep withdrawal symptoms at bay, and they may prescribe the drug naloxone to prevent an overdose. During this time, it's important to have others keep an eye on your mental state so you can receive the help you need. 

Talk therapy (usually cognitive behavioral therapy, which can be offered in group settings as well as individually) and support groups can really increase your odds of success of staying off the drugs for the long haul, meanwhile. These steps can help you navigate life without opioids and teach you coping mechanisms that don't require drugs. 

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