Updated on January 28, 2019. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Richard Koffler, MD, Board Certified Physiatrist
The opioid crisis exists in unexpected places — including your medicine cabinet. In addition to illegal drugs like heroin, prescription opioids cause many of the overdoses involved in this epidemic. Vicodin, a painkiller that contains an opioid drug, can become addictive to recreational abusers and patients alike.
Vicodin combines two painkilling drugs into one. One component, acetaminophen, appears in over-the-counter drugs. The other, hydrocodone, is an addictive opioid that requires a prescription. With two painkillers instead of one, Vicodin can offer a different kind of pain relief. However, mixing these drugs also results in a longer list of side effects.
Acetaminophen has side effects like:
Hydrocodone causes side effects such as:
A patient who takes Vicodin can have any of these adverse effects. Hydrocodone has the most cause for concern because it has deadlier side effects and a high chance of dependency. When someone overdoses on hydrocodone, they can stop breathing altogether. Patients taking hydrocodone-based medicine must keep track of their side effects and have rescue medication nearby in case of an emergency.
When someone becomes addicted to Vicodin, they are really addicted to the hydrocodone, since acetaminophen doesn’t have a risk of addiction. To relieve pain, hydrocodone changes the chemicals in your brain related to pain and pleasure. However, the brain can become reliant on the drug for feel-good chemicals and stop making its own. This results in the addict needing hydrocodone just to feel normal.
Vicodin addiction has the biggest risk of happening when a patient doesn’t take it as directed, but even patients who do follow directions are in danger. Hydrocodone misuse has such a small margin of error that even a tiny mistake could contribute to addiction. Factors like mental illness and family history raise the risk even higher.
Becoming addicted to Vicodin not only increases the dangers associated with hydrocodone, but it also makes acetaminophen side effects more likely. When you take more Vicodin, you take more acetaminophen, which can cause severe liver failure when taken in copious amounts. So, a Vicodin addict must worry about both a hydrocodone overdose and an acetaminophen overdose.
With so many side effects and such a highly addictive nature, you’d think the medical field would avoid prescribing hydrocodone as much as possible. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Doctors wrote more than 140 million prescriptions for hydrocodone in 2010 alone, making it the most frequently prescribed type of opioid. In addition, combination drugs like Vicodin are prescribed the most out of all types of hydrocodone medications.
Medicinal cannabis can help us fight the opioid epidemic by:
The research doesn’t lie. Out of nearly 3000 patients, 97 percent of those who used opioids could lower their doses with medical marijuana. Meanwhile, 81 percent of the opioid group felt cannabis worked even better to relieve their pain than medications like Vicodin.
A scientific review covering opioid and cannabinoid interactions found promising data for addiction treatment. Cannabinoids affect similar parts of the brain as opioids, but they don’t have the high addiction risk or dangerous side effects. So, recovering addicts can use medical marijuana to satisfy cravings without the drawbacks.
For more information and research on marijuana and opioids, check out our guide to medicinal cannabis for opioid dependence.
Check out our resources on specific opiates and medical marijuana: