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Vicodin is one of the most dispensed prescription painkillers in the United States. Composed of acetaminophen and the highly addictive opioid hydrocodone, Vicodin is a commonly abused substance, and seeking treatment is an important step toward recovery.

  • Drug Name Vicodin
  • Addiction Liability High
  • Scientific Name Hydrocodone & Acetaminophen
  • Street Names Vics, Norcos
  • How It's Used Swallowed, Snorted, Injected
  • Side Effects Dizziness, Anxiety, Lethargy, Mood Changes
  • Psychological Dependence Very High
  • Physical Dependence Very High

What Is Vicodin?

Vicodin is a prescription painkiller used to mitigate moderate-to-severe pain. People are generally prescribed the drug to combat pain, usually after an injury or surgery. While the drug has numbing agents, prolonged Vicodin use can result in serious health problems, including addiction.

The drug contains acetaminophen, the main ingredient in Tylenol, and hydrocodone, a powerful opioid. Acetaminophen was first used in the late 19th century after it was derived from a coal-tar distillation byproduct. Hydrocodone dates to 1920, when German pharmaceutical company Knoll synthesized the drug.

In 1978, Knoll mixed the two drugs to create Vicodin. Five years later, a generic version of the medication became available.

Today, Vicodin is one of the most popular drugs on the market. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, more than 136 million hydrocodone tablets were dispensed in 2013, making it the most prescribed opioid in the United States. Vicodin was one of the most commonly used hydrocodone products.

Medications that combine hydrocodone and acetaminophen, including Vicodin, were the most frequently prescribed drugs among veterans seeking emergency medical care at the Veterans Health Administration from 2009 to 2015, according to a study published in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine.

The retrospective study showed that 1.7 million Veterans Health Administration patients received more than 470,000 prescriptions for hydrocodone/acetaminophen during the study period. The number of prescriptions peaked in 2011 at 80,776.

Since 2011, however, researchers found a decline in the rate at which hydrocodone/acetaminophen was prescribed among veterans included in the study.

Doctor handing prescription, close-up

Vicodin Addiction Can Develop at Recommended Doses

Because Vicodin contains the opioid hydrocodone, the chances of developing dependence or addiction to the medication are high. Vicodin produces numbing effects and a short-term high like that of morphine or heroin. This has led to widespread misuse of the drug.

Vicodin addiction can occur when taken at recommended doses. Regularly taking Vicodin after an injury or surgery can increase tolerance to the drug, requiring people to take a heavier dose to alleviate the same level of pain.

Over time, the brain becomes dependent on the drug and needs it to function normally. While not all people who are dependent on Vicodin are addicted, dependence can lead to compulsive use, a common sign of a substance use disorder.

As with other opioid addictions, individuals who abuse Vicodin exhibit several warning signs.

These include:

For years, critics argued that the lack of tight regulation for Vicodin contributed to substance abuse. In 2014, the Drug Enforcement Administration reclassified Vicodin from Schedule III to Schedule II, making it more difficult to obtain. As a Schedule II drug, Vicodin is grouped with morphine, codeine and fentanyl.

Teen Vicodin Use Has Decreased Since 2013

While Vicodin remains a highly prescribed and powerful medication, fewer teens have misused drugs containing hydrocodone in recent years. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of people aged 12 to 17 who misused hydrocodone products such as Vicodin in the past year decreased by nearly 6 percent from 2015 to 2016.

Research also shows that fewer teens are using the medication. Each year since 2013, past-year use of Vicodin has decreased among eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders, according to the 2016 Monitoring the Future survey.

However, Vicodin has contributed to the opioid epidemic, an ongoing public health crisis in the United States. More than 33,000 Americans died of an opioid-related overdose in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Vicodin Use Can Cause Insomnia and Respiratory Depression

Vicodin can relieve pain from broken bones or surgery to remove wisdom teeth. However, adverse reactions can occur. The most common side effects, often found in new patients adapting to the drug, can include lightheadedness and dizziness.

Proper short-term Vicodin use rarely leads to addiction, but using the drug illicitly or for longer than prescribed can have more severe consequences to physical and psychological health.

Effects of prolonged Vicodin use can include:

Vicodin use can result in neonatal abstinence syndrome, a group of complications that occur when babies are exposed to opioids while in the womb. The disorder can cause high-pitched crying, tremors and convulsions in infants.

Beyond health risks, Vicodin abuse could compromise relationships and employment. Those addicted to the medication continue to seek and use it compulsively despite the strain it places on family and loved ones. Vicodin addiction also makes it more difficult to find and hold a job.

People with a family history of addiction are at a greater risk than the general population for developing a substance use disorder.

Vicodin vs. Norco: Difference in Amount of Hydrocodone

Although Vicodin and Norco both contain acetaminophen and hydrocodone, the drugs differ chemically. Vicodin contains 5 milligrams of hydrocodone, while Norco consists of 10 milligrams or 7.5 milligrams of hydrocodone. Therefore, people who use Norco are more likely than Vicodin users to experience side effects of hydrocodone, such as dizziness and lightheadedness.

Vicodin contains 500 milligrams of acetaminophen, whereas Norco has 325 milligrams of the medication. While Norco has more hydrocodone than Vicodin, it does not contain an effective dose of acetaminophen. As a result, it is unlikely that acetaminophen in Norco contributes to pain relief.

Methadone, Buprenorphine and Clonidine May Reduce Withdrawal Symptoms

Treatment can help a person overcome Vicodin addiction. Licensed addiction and mental health professionals at drug rehabilitation centers around the United States use evidence-based therapies to help people overcome a variety of substance use disorders.

The first stage of treatment is detox, or the process of ridding the body of a substance. During Vicodin detox, distressing withdrawal symptoms can occur as the body adjusts to a new routine. The symptoms can last up to two weeks.

Common Vicodin withdrawal symptoms include:

However, withdrawal symptoms differ by person. Short-term Vicodin users may experience a range of symptoms, including anxiety, insomnia and muscle aches. But long-term users of the drug may endure more serious symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea and cramps.

Drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine can help alleviate withdrawal symptoms in people with Vicodin addiction. Clonidine, a medication that treats high blood pressure, may help decrease sweating, agitation and muscle aches.

After detox, a number of treatment options are available, including residential and outpatient care.

Residential programs aim to help individuals change their behaviors. This treatment stage occurs in a structured setting, preparing individuals to return to their communities. Outpatient care allows individuals to live at home while attending regular counseling and therapy sessions.

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