Whenever we talk about the opioid epidemic, we must remember oxycodone addiction, in large part, fueled it. Oxycodone, widely prescribed by doctors to treat various pain disorders and widely abused by patients who developed an addiction or dependence on it, is one of the most common opioids available and sold illegally alongside its prescription counterpart.
Overprescription of oxycodone and the availability of illegal street opioids have led to a rampaging opioid epidemic that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the past 20 years. Understanding the nature of opioids like oxycodone and how they work is the first step in realizing the dangers of opioid abuse and when to seek treatment.
Oxycodone is a major ingredient in other branded pain treatment medications such as Percocet, OxyContin, and Tylox. Because of its potential for addiction and dependence, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies it as a Schedule II drug.
As a powerful opioid, oxycodone binds to opioid receptors in the brain and spine. This blocks pain signals and increases the amount of the reward neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. This not only treats acute and chronic pain but also provides a euphoric “high” that can quickly lead to addiction.
Products, including oxycodone, should be used cautiously if you’re unsure about any potential adverse allergic interactions. Use can also lead to respiratory issues during the first three days of treatment that could be life-threatening. In addition, oxycodone can interact negatively with other drugs or medications you might be taking.
Signs of Oxycodone Abuse
Oxycodone addiction triggers physical and mental changes in users when dependence develops. Some of the major symptoms associated with oxycodone abuse are:
- Dry mouth
- Low blood pressure
- Nausea and vomiting
Like other opioids, oxycodone abuse can result in possibly life-threatening overdose symptoms. These include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Slowed or stopped breathing
- Excessive tiredness
- Weak muscles
- Dilation of the pupils
- Cold, clammy skin
- Loss of consciousness or coma
Oxycodone Abuse Statistics
- In 2016, doctors prescribed more than 5 billion tablets of oxycodone to patients.
- Almost 80% of people in the U.S. who have abused heroin said they have also abused prescribed opioids such as oxycodone.
- Nearly 1 million Americans over age 12 have used OxyContin in a nonmedical context.
Oxycodone Addiction in the U.S.
Oxycodone, also known as Oxy, Perc, Roxy, or Kicker, has been used clinically since the early 1900s. However, it didn’t see widespread use for almost a century when it began to be manufactured and marketed under larger brand names.
One of the most widely distributed versions of oxycodone is under the brand name OxyContin, which has been frequently prescribed to treat pain since its creation in 1995. It comes in an extended-release capsule to help prevent abuse and addiction since delaying the absorption of the drug into the body could dissuade patients from chasing the high that comes from oxycodone use.
This extended-release capability was actually used as the main OxyContin marketing strategy to get doctors to prescribe it in more than 70% of pain treatment cases, making it one of the most prevalent opioids in the country. While lawsuits and fines from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) forced the drug’s makers to include warnings and preventative measures, the damage had already been done. Between 1999 and 2016, the U.S. would see more than 350,000 overdose deaths as patients would be prescribed heroin and then move onto street variations such as heroin once the prescription ran out.
Oxycodone Abuse on the Body
Using oxycodone as prescribed can produce various side effects, but abusing it is different. You can expect physical and mental health effects from serious oxycodone addiction.
Physical Effects of Oxycodone
Oxycodone’s basic function is to treat acute and chronic pain, and it does this by binding to the brain’s opioid receptors and blocking neurotransmitters from activating. In other words, it depresses the central nervous system.
However, using a strong opioid in a way not prescribed or for a long period can have lasting effects as it alters your brain chemistry. Your brain naturally produces opioids and maintains a delicate balance. Introducing a powerful outside source of opioids, such as oxycodone, will cause your brain chemistry to become unbalanced, so the brain will stop producing natural opioids on its own. This will cause you to depend on these outside opioids to maintain chemical balance.
Stopping use at this point will likely result in uncomfortable and potentially deadly oxycodone withdrawal symptoms as you will be left without any opioids in your body, natural or otherwise. These can include:
- Muscle aches
- Runny nose
- Dilated pupils
- Cramping in the abdomen
Mental Effects of Oxycodone
Because most powerful opioids, such as oxycodone, also inhibit the retake of dopamine in the brain’s synapses, it artificially stimulates the reward center, causing what is described as a “high.” This can lead to the following:
- Coordination loss
- Decreased inhibitions and judgment
- Mood swings
- Appetite changes
- Sleeping habit changes
- Lowered senses, physically and emotionally
- Slowed breathing
- Lowered heart rate
- Lack of motivation
The effects of opioid addiction are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, those that suffer from oxycodone dependence continue to abuse the drug to stave off uncomfortable physical withdrawal symptoms—they need to keep taking it to not feel sick.
On the other hand, the brain rewards the user for taking another dose through dopamine, so continuing oxycodone abuse avoids a consequence and is encouraged by the brain’s reward system. For this reason, quitting can seem like an extremely daunting task. But due to the brain developing an increasing tolerance to opioids, it will take more and more oxycodone to prevent withdrawal and reward you with a high. Treatment is the only long-term solution to oxycodone addiction.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Is Oxycodone a Habit-Forming Drug?
Yes. Despite the attempts the makers of OxyContin made at concealing its addictive nature, oxycodone is highly addictive and has been categorized as a Schedule II drug by the DEA. Patients prescribed oxycodone for pain often develop dependence and look to cheaper, more dangerous ways to satisfy the cravings and avoid withdrawal symptoms. For this reason, tens of thousands of overdose deaths have involved oxycodone since its widespread use in 1995.
What Are the Negative Effects of Oxycodone?
Oxycodone can be very useful for those who truly have acute or chronic pain. This is why it is so widely prescribed to this day. However, normal prescription use has negative side effects e as well as oxycodone misuse. These can include muscle achiness, insomnia, agitation, anxiety, vomiting, cramping, diarrhea, nausea, sweating, running nose, and dilated pupils.
However, more severe symptoms and withdrawal can include slowed or stopped breathing, general muscular weakness, or even loss of consciousness. Overdose deaths are often the result of an impaired respiratory system and suffocation.
How Quickly Do Opioids Become Addictive?
How fast a person develops an addiction highly depends on the person. Your age, weight, brain chemistry, substance history, and genetics are vital in how quickly you can become addicted to opioids like oxycodone. Some individuals can go through an entire prescription of OxyContin as prescribed and not develop an addiction, while others can get hooked with just a few doses.
How Can You Quit Using Oxycodone?
The best way to quit oxycodone abuse and live a life free from addiction is to seek treatment at an accredited substance abuse treatment facility. Because of how dangerous and uncomfortable quitting cold turkey can be, the first step will be to undergo medically supervised detox. This will allow you to remove oxycodone from your body and have your brain start producing its opioids in safety and comfort.
Once oxycodone is out of your system and your internal brain chemistry rebalances, you can move on to inpatient treatment. Here, you will participate in regular therapy sessions while living on the facility campus to avoid the triggers of your everyday life. That will then lead to outpatient treatment allowing you to participate in the same therapy sessions while living at home.
Keefe, P. R. (2018, May 31). The Family That Built an Empire of Pain. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/30/the-family-that-built-an-empire-of-pain
Opioid Crisis Fast Facts. (2018, November 06). Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2017/09/18/health/opioid-crisis-fast-facts/index.html
Oxycodone: MedlinePlus Drug Information. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a682132.html
Minnesota Department of Health. Opioid Overdose. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.health.state.mn.us/communities/opioids/basics/overdose.html