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Risks and Dangers of Long-Term Vicodin Use



Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

Vicodin is the brand name of a prescription painkiller composed of hydrocodone and acetaminophen. Hydrocodone is an opiate pain reliever similar to morphine. It also is sometimes useful as a cough suppressant. Acetaminophen is an over-the-counter fever reducer and mild pain reliever.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are made from the opium poppy plant. Prescription opioids are used to treat non-chronic moderate to severe pain (like from an injury during healing, or post-surgical pain) and are intended for short-term use only. Opioids also make people feel relaxed and high, so they are often misused. They are highly addictive, come with several dangerous and potentially deadly side effects, and overdose deaths because of respiratory failure are common.

Vicodin is not the only hydrocodone/acetaminophen mixture used. Lorcet, Lortab, Norco, and Zohydro are similar, and a hydrocodone/ibuprofen drug called Vicoprofen is also available. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the most commonly used prescription opioids are oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, and morphine. Heroin is also an opioid.

How Does Vicodin Work?

Vicodin binds to the body’s opioid receptors and lowers the perception of pain, suppresses the cough reflex, and creates feelings of euphoria, calm, and relaxation. Even when used as prescribed, it can produce unwanted and uncomfortable side effects. If used with alcohol, there is a greater risk of experiencing serious side effects, as well as increasing the risk of liver damage.

Is Vicodin Addictive?

Vicodin users will develop a tolerance — their body will become accustomed to the drug — and they’ll need larger or more frequent doses to feel the same effects. Users can become physically and psychologically dependent on Vicodin, where their bodies require the drug to feel normal. Eventually, this leads to full addiction. They may begin to look for other opioids if they can’t get Vicodin, and many heroin users begin their drug abuse with a prescription opiate.

Health Risks Of Vicodin

There are several health risks that long-term Vicodin users may face. The amount of Vicodin a person uses, along with their body chemistry, weight, and pre-existing medical conditions, directly influence what they experience.

  • Respiratory issues – Vicodin can slow breathing or heart rate enough that sufficient oxygen may not be delivered to the brain and other vital organs, damaging them. It may cause respiratory infections or other serious lung problems and also increases the risk of sudden death for those with sleep apnea or lung disease. Some people snort Vicodin to get high, damaging the nasal passageways and possibly leading to loss of the sense of smell.
  • Liver Damage – The acetaminophen in Vicodin is enough to cause liver damage when overused. Acetaminophen elevates a number of liver enzymes, and when they remain elevated for too long, liver damage occurs that can lead to cirrhosis or liver failure.
  • Chronic Constipation & Digestive Issues – Opioid drugs are linked to constipation, which can begin immediately or develop over time. It can cause long-term problems, including hemorrhoids, fecal impaction, and rectal prolapse. Nausea and vomiting can cause chronic heartburn, damage the esophagus, and increase the risk of ulcers. Gastrointestinal bleeding is often associated with hydrocodone/acetaminophen drugs.
  • Kidney Failure – Overuse of acetaminophen can also lead to life-threatening kidney damage or renal failure. Vicodin users may also have difficulty urinating, which can lead to infections in the urinary tract and kidneys.
  • Brain Damage – As noted earlier, opioids can deprive the brain of oxygen, causing damage. They also change neurotransmitter release and absorption, especially mood-related ones like serotonin and dopamine. Over time, the structures associated with emotional regulation, rational thinking, memory, and learning will change. Personality changes, memory loss, difficulties focusing, and cognitive decline are all signs of brain damage. In severe cases, the damage may cause delusions or hallucinations.
  • Reproductive Problems & Pregnancy Risk – Vicodin can cause low hormone levels. Decreases in estrogen or testosterone can impact fertility, making it harder to have children. Use during pregnancy can cause babies to become addicted in the womb and go through painful withdrawal when they are born. Vicodin abuse can lead to low birth weight and premature birth.
  • Hyperalgesia – Opioid abusers may damage the opioid receptors in their brains, changing how their bodies manage pain response. They may actually develop an increased sensitivity to pain.

Vicodin Withdrawal

Vicodin abusers will experience withdrawal symptoms that mirror those associated with opioid and heroin withdrawal — physical pain, restlessness, insomnia, lack of appetite, nausea/vomiting/diarrhea, and sweating — if they stop using.

Withdrawal from Vicodin is serious enough to warrant professional medical detoxification. Medically assisted detox will increase comfort, provide a safe environment, and reduce the intense cravings that often lead to relapse. Taking part in a complete rehabilitation program that includes inpatient or residential rehabilitation, outpatient care, and aftercare programs is the best course of action to overcome a Vicodin addiction.

Why Choose Into Action Recovery Centers?

Into Action Recovery Centers takes pride in providing a high level of treatment and a holistic approach to recovery for those who suffer from addiction. Our comfortable facility is designed with the client’s needs foremost in mind. Our staff includes master’s level counselors, licensed chemical dependency counselors, 24-hour nursing professionals, a staff psychiatrist, a staff chef, and direct care personnel. Our counseling staff provides individualized treatment and care for our clients with an emphasis on tailoring treatment to the specific needs of each individual. Additionally, our staff provides family counseling, relapse prevention, life skills, and grief and trauma counseling.

We provide an abstinence-based program and all of our staff members have a strong understanding of the recovery process through personal experience. We are passionate about sharing the process involved in living a drug and alcohol-free life. We offer free aftercare for the men who complete our program and have a strong alumni network that remains active in the community. We also offer other amenities such as dietician-prepared meals, mindfulness-based meditation training, outings, and fitness training.

Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

Dr. Saeed is a psychiatry specialist with over 40 years of experience in the medical field. He received training in General Psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he was selected as the Medical Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. He currently serves as the medical director at Into Action Recovery Centers. Full Bio

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