Hydrocodone/Oxycodone Overdose

Written by Kristeen Moore | Published on August 31, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What is a Hydrocodone/Oxycodone Overdose?

Hydrocodone and oxycodone are drugs that are commonly prescribed to relieve pain. Certain prescription pain relievers contain high concentrations of these ingredients, including:

  • Percocet
  • Vicodin
  • OxyContin

An overdose may be caused by accidentally taking more than the prescribed amount in a 24-hour period, or by intentionally taking more than the recommended dosage for recreational use or to do personal harm.

An overdose is extremely dangerous and can be fatal. Emergency medical attention is required to prevent further complications or death.

Causes of Overdose

Hydrocodone and oxycodone are powerful drugs that doctors only prescribe when necessary. The ingredients in these drugs are habit-forming and some people may develop a dependency or addiction to them. People who become addicted often build up a tolerance to the drug and need to take larger amounts in order to feel their effects. This type of behavior can often lead to an overdose.

Others may use these types of drugs without a prescription to get “high.” This is an extremely dangerous practice, particularly among young adults. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), up to 10 percent of high school students abuse some form of prescription painkiller (NIDA).

Abuse of these medications means taking them recreationally (not for medical purposes), or consuming them in a way other than what it is recommended for, such as snorting or injecting them.

Painkiller Use Among the Elderly

Unfortunately, painkiller abuse and overdose are prevalent among almost all age groups. This includes teens, adults, and the elderly. There is greater concern among the elderly due to:

  • slower metabolism
  • multiple prescriptions
  • increased forgetfulness

If you have an elderly family member who is taking painkillers, you might consider helping him or her by:

  • organizing medicines
  • dividing up meds by day
  • keeping a dosing log

It is also helpful to check in on your loved one on a regular basis. The risk for deadly complications from an accidental overdose increases significantly with age.

Recognizing an Overdose

People who take painkillers may experience certain side effects such as drowsiness, constipation or nausea. However, an overdose can carry the risk of more serious symptoms. These include:

  • shallow breathing, which may slow down to the point of stopping
  • extreme fatigue
  • vomiting
  • small pupils
  • lack of consciousness

A drug overdose is a medical emergency. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of an overdose, call 911 or poison control at 1-800-222-1222.

Long-Term Effects of Prescription Painkiller Abuse

Long-term abuse of prescription painkillers can cause severe medical complications, which become even more dangerous when you drink alcohol or combine prescription medications with other drugs.

Complications include:

  • respiratory problems
  • coma
  • slowed heart rate
  • death

Overdose Treatment

A drug overdose requires emergency medical treatment. If breathing is extremely slow or shallow, or if emergency room doctors feel that symptoms are life threatening, a drug called naloxone is used to reverse symptoms of an overdose. If breathing is acceptable, doctors may instead use activated charcoal or laxatives to help remove any leftover medications in the stomach.

Drug treatment programs and therapy may also be recommended to address problems with drug abuse and addiction.

Survival, Recovery, and Outlook

You have the best chances of surviving an overdose if you receive medical attention before you experience breathing problems. When your breathing slows, oxygen levels decrease, which can eventually lead to brain damage if you wait too long for treatment. Outlook also depends on the severity of the overdose and how quickly you seek medical treatment. Mixing prescription drugs with alcohol and other illegal substances increases the risk for life-threatening complications.

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