Oxycodone is the active ingredient in some of the most popular and widely abused prescription painkillers in the world. It’s the key ingredient in the brand name drugs OxyContin, Roxicodone and Percocet.
It’s also highly addictive and one of the top drugs, along with methadone and hydrocodone, involved in prescription opioid overdose deaths.
Doctors prescribe oxycodone to treat moderate to severe pain but people also abuse the drug for its relaxing and euphoric effects. Ongoing use of opioid painkillers can lead to physical dependence and addiction.
Oxycodone comes in dozens of different formulations and is sold under a number of brand names.
Oxycodone is often combined with non-narcotic pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or aspirin, and sold under a variety of names, including: Percocet, Percodan, Tylox and Roxicet. These short-acting formulas are rapidly absorbed and usually taken every six hours as needed for pain.
Extended-release versions of the drug, such as Oxycontin, are more potent than immediate-release versions of the drug.
Oxycontin was designed to be taken once every 12 hours for cancer pain and other conditions requiring around the clock treatment. But individuals seeking a high can crush or melt extended-release tablets to inject for a more intense and almost instant high.
As a result, Oxycontin addiction has become a rampant problem in the United States.
People often wonder about the difference between hydrocodone and oxycodone. Both are semi-synthetic opioids, meaning they are made in a laboratory by modifying naturally occurring opiates, but they differ in potency.
While hydrocodone is approximately equal in strength to morphine, oxycodone is about 50 percent more potent than morphine. This makes oxycodone riskier in terms of the potential for overdose and serious effects. Both are dangerous, however, and can lead to dependence and addiction.
When prescribed by a doctor and used as directed, oxycodone side effects are usually mild.
Common side effects of therapeutic oxycodone use include:
But using opioids such as oxycodone longer than absolutely necessary can easily lead to physical dependence and addiction. Even when taken as directed, a person can end up dependent on oxycodone.
A person can develop a tolerance to oxycodone in as little as two weeks. As their tolerance increases, they’ll need higher doses of the painkiller to feel the same effect. With continual use, an individual will become dependent on the drug and suffer distressing withdrawal symptoms upon cessation.
Oxycodone withdrawal is similar to withdrawal from other opioids. Symptoms include restlessness, diarrhea, vomiting and muscle aches. The duration and intensity of withdrawal symptoms can vary widely, depending on the extent of the dependence. People who’ve been using larger amounts of oxycodone for longer periods will typically suffer more severe symptoms.
Several states have adopted three, five and seven-day limits for first-time opioid prescriptions. Some retailers, including CVS, Walmart and Sam’s Club, have decided not to fill more than a 7-day supply for certain conditions.
Dependence is not the same as addiction, however, and a person can be physically dependent on a drug without being addicted. Dependence occurs when a person needs a drug to feel normal but does not result in compulsive behaviors. Individuals who are addicted to oxycodone exhibit compulsive behavior and misuse the drug despite negative consequences.
Signs that a person may be addicted to prescription painkillers such as oxycodone include:
People addicted to oxycodone may take the drug to get high, treat pain, relieve stress or avoid withdrawal symptoms. They may experience difficulties functioning at work, in school or in social situations and prioritize obtaining the drug over anything else.
A person with a Percocet addiction or dependence on other oxycodone products may develop a number of serious and potentially life-threatening side effects.
Warning signs of oxycodone overdose include:
Injecting, snorting or consuming oxycodone in high doses drastically increases the chances of overdose. Combining oxycodone with street drugs, sleeping pills, tranquilizers and other central nervous system depressants can also increase the risk of life-threatening breathing problems, sedation or coma.
Mixing oxycodone and alcohol can also lead to an accidental overdose and death. In 2011, Derek Boogaard, a professional hockey player, accidentally died after mixing alcohol and oxycodone. The 28-year-old athlete had battled addiction for years after being treated with prescription painkillers for sports-related injuries.
Mixing oxycodone and Xanax is extremely dangerous and can lead to coma and death.
Approximately one in every three accidental opioid overdoses, in fact, involves mixing prescription opioids and benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Valium. The risk is so significant that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines in 2016 warning doctors to avoid the combination whenever possible.
Addiction treatment centers and drug rehab facilities can help patients struggling with an oxycodone addiction. Key components of treatment include behavioral therapy and medication-based treatment.
Treatment always begins with an assessment and detox. Drugs such as naltrexone, buprenorphine and methadone can ease cravings and symptoms of withdrawal during detox. If patients are suffering from addictions to multiple drugs or co-occurring mental health disorders, physicians and therapists usually treat those conditions simultaneously.
After detox, patients may participate in several types of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, contingency management or motivational interviewing. Therapy helps patients understand what causes addiction, how to prevent relapse, how to recover from relapse and how to find motivation to live without substances of abuse.
Most treatment programs also help patients find support after treatment. Many people in recovery find support from groups such as Narcotics Anonymous to be helpful.
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