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prescription pill bottles

Oxycodone, OxyContin, Demerol, Percocet, Vicodin, Codeine, Hydrocodone, Morphine Dilaudid

Prescription painkillers, often referred to as opioids, are potent narcotics prescribed by medical professionals to treat moderate to severe pain. In addition to providing relief from the discomfort or pain, some users may experience brief feelings of euphoria. These medications can be habit-forming, and therefore should only be taken as prescribed by your doctor. Continue reading to find out why prescription painkillers can become addictive, the short and long-term effects, and painkiller addiction treatment options.

Common Prescription Painkillers

Codeine

Meperidine (Demerol)

What Are Opioid Prescription Painkillers?

Prescription painkillers are powerful medications for the treatment of pain associated with chronic diseases, such as cancer, or for treating acute pain due to surgical procedures or injuries. Most painkiller medications should be taken on a short-term basis, which is normally a week or less.

Opioids attach themselves to and activate opioid receptors found in cells located on the central nervous system (CNS) and digestive tract. They inhibit the transmission of pain signals from the nervous system to the brain, thus blocking the brain’s perception of pain. Taking opioids at a higher-than-prescribed dose can cause feelings of euphoria, but it also increases the risk of respiratory depression.

Regular or long-term use of opioid pain medications can lead to dependence, increased tolerance and, in some cases, addiction. In a given year, 16 million or 6 percent of Americans over the age of 12 abuse prescription medications. If the user develops an opioid addiction, stopping painkiller misuse can cause uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. If you are worried about the possible negative side effects of opioid medication, there may be other pain management alternative treatment options for patients, so talk to a professional or specialist about your concerns.

What Are the Most Commonly Abused Prescription Painkillers?

Oxycodone – Oxycodone is a prescribed drug pain medication used to treat moderate to severe pain. It is often sold under the brand names Xtampza ER, Oxaydo, Roxicodone, and OxyContin. When acetaminophen (Tylenol) is added, it is often known as Percocet. Most commonly, it is prescribed for around-the-clock treatment. Oxycodone comes in immediate release (IR) tablets, which are mostly used for acute pain, and extended release (ER) tablets.

Meperidine (Demerol) – Demerol is a fairly uncommon prescription pain medication used to relieve short-term moderate to severe pain when other non-opioid medications are not strong enough. It typically comes in the form of a syrup, but it can also be prescribed in tablet form. Demerol was at one point a first-line analgesic treatment for pain and was introduced in the 1930s. However, in the 2020s, it is not widely used.

Percocet – Percocet is a brand name of oxycodone, but it also contains another medication to help relieve pain. Most often, this highly addictive painkiller is comprised of oxycodone and acetaminophen (Tylenol),  but it can be combined with another non-opioid pain reliever called  paracetamol. It is used for acute pain and is just as habit-forming as “regular” oxycodone. In fact, addiction to Percocet can be difficult for the liver because of the acetaminophen it contains.

Vicodin – Vicodin is a mixture of hydrocodone and acetaminophen, similar to the makeup of Percocet. It is a pain reliever drug used for the relief of moderate to moderately severe pain.. Heavy use of Vicodin is not only habit-forming, but long-term use over time can lead to liver damage because of the levels of acetaminophen in the medicine. Vicodin may be prescribed as Lortab, Zydone, Lorcet, and Anexsia.

Codeine – Codeine is an opioid that has many uses; however, its FDA-approved use is for moderate pain management, particularly with diseases such as cancer, chronic back pain, and fibromyalgia. Doctors will often prescribe codeine off-label as a cough suppressant, as a treatment for restless legs syndrome (RLS), or to control diarrhea. When codeine is prescribed off-label, it is typically combined with another medication, such as the addition of promethazine to control cough. Its many uses do not disqualify it from being as addictive as its other drugs in the opioid class, however, and the potential for abuse is high.

Hydrocodone – Hydrocodone is an analgesic and opioid pain medication, but it may also be prescribed to treat a severe cough. It is used to treat severe pain for around-the-clock treatment, usually when other medications have not been effective. It often comes in extended-release capsules and tablets. Hydrocodone is also available in other forms combined with other medications. When combined with acetaminophen, it is known as Vicodin or Lortab, and when hydrocodone is combined with ibuprofen, it is sold as  Vicoprofen, Ibudone, or Reprexain. It may also be combined with aspirin.

Morphine –Morphine is used to relieve severe pain and should only be used when other forms of pain relief have not been successful in managing pain or are not tolerated. It is not a synthetic opioid like other drugs in its class and is derived from the poppy plant. Morphine is often used in pain management for end-of-life care, such as with cancer patients. Most commonly, it is taken as a pill or injected. As morphine is one of the stronger opiates, ill patients taking the medicine should be especially mindful of its side effects, such as respiratory depression and trouble with breathing. Morphine is highly addictive.

Hydromorphone (Dilaudid) – With the exception of fentanyl, hydromorphone is considered the strongest narcotic opioid. Its potency is two to eight times greater than that of morphine, and it has a quicker onset, which is paramount to those chasing a quick fix. Dialudid is prescribed for short-term acute pain when other pain management medications have failed. In other words, it’s the very last option for pain management because of its potency. It is often administered in a hospital setting and not offered as a prescription.

Because of its strength and high potential for abuse, it carries a high risk for overdose. On the street, it may be called dust, smack, or footballs.

For any opioid medications, never crush or chew the tablets as it can result in dangerous and high levels of the drug in your body’s system. Do not modify your dosage or stop taking any of these medications without speaking with a doctor first.

What Do Prescription Painkillers Look Like?

The appearance of prescription pain medications varies, depending on the brand and dosage. They come in a variety of tablet and pill forms. For example, hydrocodone comes in a white circular or oval tablet and has the strength/dosage imprinted on the pill. On the other hand, Percocet pills can come in an oval or round shape and can be yellow, blue, or white.

Opioids sold on the street could be misused, yet legitimate medications prescribed from a doctor, but they can also be fake. Fake pills don’t contain the chemical makeup of the “real thing,” and they may contain many other harmful substances, such as fentanyl. A fake pill can kill—to tell the difference, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) helps you on their One Pill Can Kill website. If you’re unsure, always test with fentanyl drug test strips, which are now widely available at any pharmacy.

How Are Prescription Painkillers Used?

Prescription painkillers are abused orally, crushed and sniffed, or dissolved in water and injected. There are also creams, ointments, and patches. Furthermore, there are typically immediate-release and extended-release opioids. Both can be highly addictive, but immediate-release opioids are more sought after since they are usually a doctor’s first choice. They also provide an instant high that people crave.

What Are the Short-Term Effects of Prescription Painkillers?

Prescription opioids are also known to cause feelings of euphoria and relaxation. Despite the temporary relief they may provide, these medications can have lethal side effects. Some of the short-term effects of prescription painkiller misuse are:

  • Slowed heartbeat
  • Confusion
  • Constricted pupils
  • Shallow breathing
  • Seizures
  • Constipation
  • Impotence
  • Drowsiness
  • Slow reaction time
  • Itchiness

Why Are Prescription Painkillers Harmful?

The first issue with prescription opioids is their potential to abuse. Over time, patients or users build up a high tolerance and need more and more of the medication to achieve a high or to relieve pain. Misuse can lead to suppressed breathing and organ damage.

However, negative long-term effects of using these medications go beyond addiction. Long-term use of opioids (whether illicitly or from your physician) can actually increase pain, cause weight gain, raise blood pressure, and can cause various cardiovascular and gastrointestinal disorders. Over time, the opioids used to relieve pain cause more pain in the body, as long-term use has contributed to a change in the chemical makeup of the body’s pain receptors.

Doctors typically only prescribe opiates in the short-term interim, unless there is a serious condition, such as cancer. This is not only for the potential for abuse but for also the negative side effects of opioid use, even when taken as directed. Misuse can be much more damaging.

Misuse can look like anything from increasing your dosage without talking to a doctor first or using someone else’s medication who has a similar condition. Furthermore, prescription painkillers are especially damaging when mixed with alcohol because combining the two boosts the risk of respiratory failure. This destructive mixture can also cause mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Prescription Painkiller Abuse?

As previously mentioned, continuous misuse of prescribed opioids can lead to painkiller addiction and serious health problems, including:

  • Liver damage
  • Muscle spasms
  • Severe constipation
  • Kidney failure
  • Respiratory failure
  • Weakened immune system
  • Cardiovascular issues

What Are the Signs of Prescription Painkiller Addiction?

Repeated opioid abuse can cause the brain to become dependent on these drugs. One of the most common signs of painkiller abuse is drowsiness and nodding off at random times. In addition, other signs of a prescription painkiller addiction include:

Psychological Symptoms

  • Mood changes
  • Defensiveness
  • Lack of energy
  • Irregular sleeping habits

Physical Signs

  • Weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Slow movements
  • Digestive problems

What Does a Prescription Painkiller Overdose Look Like?

An overdose occurs when an individual’s body cannot metabolize the substance fast enough to avoid the unintended side effects. During an overdose, prescription pills affect the part of the brain that controls breathing. In most cases, breathing stops completely. Oxygen starvation eventually stops vital organs. Signs of a prescription painkiller overdose can include:

  • Dizziness
  • Clammy skin
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Bluish nails, skin, or lips
  • Vomiting
  • Gurgling sounds
  • Erratic breathing
  • Unconsciousness

In the event of an overdose, one should call 911 for help and if possible, administer naloxone (sold under the name Narcan), an over-the-counter medicine designed to reverse opioid overdoses. Knowing how to use Narcan properly could save a life. In many cases, multiple doses may be necessary. Because of the severe damage that painkillers can have on the body, it is important to seek immediate medical attention immediately, even if naloxone is successful at reversing the overdose.

How to Use Narcan

To use Narcan, first, assess the situation for any signs of an overdose. Look for symptoms such as unconsciousness, slow or shallow breathing, and pinpoint pupils. If these signs are present, it is crucial to act quickly. Call 911 immediately for professional medical assistance FIRST.

Next, administer the Narcan nasal spray or injection according to the instructions provided with the medication. The nasal spray is the most commonly used form of Narcan and is easy to use. Remove the device from its packaging and hold it with your thumb on the bottom and two fingers on either side of the nozzle. Gently insert the nozzle into one nostril until your fingers touch the bottom of the person’s nose. Press the plunger firmly to release the medication. Repeat the process in the other nostril if necessary.

For the injectable form of Narcan, carefully read the instructions provided with the medication for proper administration. It typically involves using a syringe to inject the medication into a muscle, such as the thigh or upper arm. Make sure to follow all safety precautions, including using clean needles and disposing of them properly.

After administering Narcan, continue to monitor the person’s breathing and stay with them until medical help arrives. It is important to remember that Narcan is only a temporary solution and does not replace professional medical care. Therefore, it is crucial to seek immediate medical attention for anyone who has experienced an opioid overdose, even if they have been revived with Narcan.

How is a Prescription Painkiller Addiction Treated?

Detox

Because prescription painkillers take a tremendous toll on physical health, medically-monitored detox is strongly recommended before beginning any other form of addiction treatment. During the detoxification process, toxic substances are eliminated from the body, allowing it to begin to heal. Due to the strong physical dependence caused by long-term abuse, it is important that individuals detox under the supervision of a healthcare professional. This will ensure the individual’s safety and comfort during this challenging process. Opioid withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Nausea
  • Irritation
  • Muscle aches
  • Intense cravings
  • Chills
  • Insomnia
  • Hot flashes
  • Abdominal cramps

Addiction Treatment

Recovering from addiction is more than just abstaining from pills. It is important that after the body has been stabilized, individuals continue onto a rehabilitation program that will help them uncover the root cause of their addiction, address their emotions and behaviors, and learn how to maintain their sobriety through drug counseling. The most common treatment options are inpatient (residential) and outpatient treatment programs, which are often supplemented with medication-assisted treatment.

Substance abuse negatively impacts an individual’s physical, mental, and spiritual wellness. Combining alternative therapies with traditional drug treatment helps to address the individual as a whole. By improving overall well-being, individuals find themselves better prepared to overcome any challenges they may face in the future.

Certain holistic therapies can meet the needs of those struggling specifically with prescription painkiller addiction. Some wellness experts even recommend turning to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness to manage pain in a healthy way. Individuals who relied on painkillers to alleviate their physical discomfort can find a similar but safer form of relief through acupuncture. Another natural alternative to painkiller medication is yoga, which gently stretches and strengthens the body to relieve pain. Those who experienced adverse physical side-effects as a result of their painkiller use can learn how to properly nourish and restore their bodies through nutrition education.

Explore our Wellness page to learn about other therapeutic activities that provide holistic rejuvenation.

While prescription painkillers may seem harmless, long-term abuse can be deadly. If you or a loved one is struggling with opioid painkillers, reach out for help. We are here to assist you every step of the way. A life free from addiction is possible.

While prescription painkillers may seem harmless, long-term abuse can be deadly. If you or a loved one is struggling with prescription painkillers, reach out for help. We are here to assist you every step of the way. A life free from addiction is possible.

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