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Written By
Chris Elkins, M.A.
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13 Cited Research Articles

Oxycodone is one of the most prescribed painkillers in the world, but the opioid is also involved in thousands of overdose deaths every year. Increased prescriptions of drugs containing oxycodone, such as OxyContin and Percocet, have led to an increasing number of people with opioid use disorders.

Fast Facts: Oxycodone

Addiction Liability
Street Names
OxyContin, Oxy, OC, Kickers, Killers, Orange County
Side Effects
Irregular Breathing, Headache, Dizziness, Low Blood Pressure, Impaired Focus, Seizure
How It's Used
Swallowed, Snorted, Injected
Psychological Dependence
Very High
Physical Dependence
Very High
Legal Status
Schedule II

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.

Doctors prescribe drugs containing oxycodone for the short-term treatment of moderate or severe pain. Extended-release versions of the drug contain stronger potencies than immediate-release versions, and they were designed to be used once every 12 hours. However, individuals seeking a high can crush or melt the extended-release versions to snort or inject it.

Oxycodone prescriptions in the U.S.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Abusing oxycodone can cause intense euphoria or relaxation, but it can also be deadly. More people die from abusing prescription painkillers than any other kind of drug.

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When used as prescribed by a doctor, side effects from oxycodone are usually mild.

Common side effects of therapeutic oxycodone use include:

  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Stomach pain
  • Drowsiness
  • Sweating
  • Headache

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration classifies oxycodone as a Schedule II narcotic because of its high potential for abuse. After opioid painkillers were involved in alarmingly high numbers of deaths in the late ‘90s and throughout the 2000s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration forced companies to develop abuse-deterrent pills.

The new abuse-deterrent versions of oxycodone are more difficult to crush and melt. The FDA has also added several warnings to oxycodone labels and issued safety communication, advising doctors to prescribe the drugs with caution.

The Opioid Epidemic Began With OxyContin

Oxycodone and other opioids were primarily used only in palliative care and cancer treatment until the FDA approved extended-release OxyContin in 1995. The drug’s manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, marketed the drug as less addictive than other pain relievers, and the number of prescriptions for OxyContin skyrocketed.

“The issue of safe and effectiveness got muddled back in the mid ‘90s with the introduction of OxyContin,” Dr. Chris Johnson, the head of Minnesota’s Opioid Prescribing Workgroup, told “Purdue Pharma took their continuous release preparation from M.S. Contin (morphine), and they applied the same formula to this non-sexy, old opioid called oxycodone. OxyContin became the focus of a marketing campaign that claimed all opioids were safe and effective. There was no evidence for that.”

An increasing number of people became addicted to the drug, leading to an epidemic of opioid prescribing and deaths. OxyContin also became available on the street, and drug users began snorting and injecting it.

Opioid prescriptions grew from 76 million in 1991 to 207 million in 2013. During a similar time frame — from 1999 to 2014 — the number of people dying from drug overdoses involving painkillers quadrupled.

More than 14,000 deaths were related to prescription opioids in 2014. That year, more than 17 million people abused products containing oxycodone, and seven million of them abused OxyContin specifically.

Recent prevention efforts have begun to combat the problem, though. The number of people abusing OxyContin spiked in 2010 and has been slowly decreasing since then.

Persons Ages 12 and Older who reported misusing OxyContin during the past year:

  • 2004 — 1.21 million
  • 2005 — 1.23 million
  • 2006 — 1.32 million
  • 2007 — 1.43 million
  • 2008 — 1.46 million
  • 2009 — 1.69 million
  • 2010 — 1.88 million
  • 2011 — 1.62 million
  • 2012 — 1.48 million
  • 2013 — 1.44 million
  • 2014 — 1.23 million

Causes and Symptoms of Oxycodone Addiction

Every person who takes a prescription painkiller for an extended period of time — more than two weeks — will begin to develop a tolerance for the drug. As a person’s tolerance increases, he or she will require higher doses of the painkiller to feel the same effect.

People who continually consume oxycodone will become dependent on the drug, meaning they will experience withdrawal symptoms upon cessation. Oxycodone withdrawal symptoms include restlessness, diarrhea, vomiting, and muscle or bone pain.

However, dependency is different from addiction. Individuals who are addicted to oxycodone exhibit compulsive behavior and abuse the drug despite negative consequences.

Signs that a person may be addicted to prescription painkillers such as oxycodone include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Droopy eyes
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of motivation
  • Drastic changes in behaviors or habits
  • Changes in appearance
  • Secrecy

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.

Taking oxycodone in ways other those prescribed by a doctor, such as injecting it, snorting it or consuming it in high doses, drastically increases the chances of overdose. People addicted to oxycodone must regularly increase their dosage to feel the same effects and often get the drug from unreliable sources. This increases their risk for overdose.

Overdosing on oxycodone can be deadly.

Warning signs of oxycodone overdose include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Limp or weak muscles
  • Cold skin
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Blue skin, lips or fingernails
  • Loss of consciousness or coma

Fortunately, life-saving drugs such as naloxone have been developed to counteract the effects of an opioid overdose.

Naltrexone, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Other Treatments for Oxycodone Addiction

Addiction treatment centers and drug rehab facilities can help patients with an addiction to oxycodone. Proven behavioral therapy and medication-based treatment methods can help patients recover from oxycodone addiction.

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.

Preventing Oxycodone Addiction

Opioids such as oxycodone contain addictive properties, but they rarely cause addiction when used for short-term medical treatment. That’s why national organizations and federal agencies have developed best practices for using opioid-based medications.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends opioid prescription guidelines based on the following principles:

  • Non-opioid treatment for pain is preferred to opioid treatment — except for cancer, palliative and end-of-life care.
  • Doctors should prescribe the lowest effective dosage when prescribing opioids.
  • Opioids should be prescribed with caution and patients should be closely monitored.

The American Academy of Pain Medicine and the FDA have released similar guidelines. The best way to prevent oxycodone addiction is to take the drug exactly as prescribed and to discuss all treatment options with your health care provider. If an addiction develops, the best way to recover is to seek professional help.

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