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Vicodin: The Long-Term Side Effects

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Unfortunately, if you or someone you know and love has abused Vicodin for any duration of time, you may have to deal with some long-term side effects of the drug. Vicodin long-term side effects can be very difficult to deal with and may affect a person long after they stop using the drug.

Long-term side effects will vary from person to person and depend on how long the person was abusing the drug, as well as genetic factors and more, but in general, a person who has been abusing Vicodin for any duration of time can expect to deal with some side effects.

Many long-term side effects are minor and will run their course with time, but others may require more effort to eliminate from the system. Some may even be permanent. In this post, we’ll take a long at some of the Vicodin long-term side effects that abusers of the drug may have to deal with.

But first, if you skim through and just look at the headers, you may notice that one effect of Vicodin addiction you probably expected to find on this list is missing: overdose.

Why Isn’t Overdose On The List?

You don’t see overdose on the list of Vicodin long-term side effects because it is more of a short-term risk.

Vicodin is a combination of hydrocodone and acetaminophen. On their own, hydrocodone and acetaminophen each have a relatively low risk for overdose. But the combination of the two can be toxic to the body. The acetaminophen is meant to limit the addictive power of hydrocodone, but can cause overdose symptoms you might not expect because of how it affects the liver.

Vicodin can cause permanent damage to the liver in relatively low doses–damage that may not be obvious at the time. In higher doses, Vicodin can be deadly. A large dose of Vicodin can also cause death by suppressing breathing, slowing the heart rate and stopping the heart.

Another reason Vicodin can cause an overdose is because of how toxic large amounts of acetaminophen are to the liver. Because of the level of acetaminophen found in Vicodin, you can overdose on Vicodin at a much lower dose than on other drugs.

This is especially true of a person abuses Vicodin with alcohol because the combination will limit the liver’s ability to fully metabolize both substances at the same time, which leaves the liver vulnerable to the harmful components in acetaminophen, which could, in turn, lead to an overdose, causing long-term damage and even death.

For this reason, overdose is a short-term side effect of Vicodin use. However, coma and death brought on by an overdose can certainly be considered long-term side effects of Vicodin. Overdose and long-term abuse can also lead to liver damage.

Liver Damage Or Failure Resulting From Long-Term Use and Overdose

All drugs are processed and broken down by the liver. Because of this, abusing painkillers will put great stress on the liver.

The long-term abuse of Vicodin or worse, the combination of alcohol and Vicodin, can lead to hepatic necrosis, which is an acute, toxic injury to the liver, which can lead to liver failure. While hepatic necrosis is sudden in onset, it takes a long time for the damage to get to the point of total liver failure, making this a sort of mix between long- and short-term side effect. Hepatic necrosis can be extremely painful.

 

The high level of acetaminophen in Vicodin can cause mild to severe damage to the liver when a person exceeds their recommended dosage. This can result in an abnormal liver function, liver failure, or even death. Though the damage can be very serious, it might not be immediately obvious, and may also be mistaken for another condition, such as something as simple as the flu. It may take just days for liver damage to progress to death.

As mentioned, those most at risk for overdose are the users who abuse Vicodin and alcohol together, but anyone who is using Vicodin to get high could be at risk for overdose or permanent damage to the liver. This is why Vicodin should only be taken in the doses recommended by your doctor and swallowed as a whole pill. People are much more at risk for overdose or liver damage if they ingest Vicodin by crushing the pills to snort or inject the drug.

Because of the high acetaminophen content in Vicodin, some abusers try to process the pills through a washing technique that is supposed to remove most of the acetaminophen. However, many people skip this step and use the drugs in their original forms. In 2011, the FDA ruled to limit the amount of acetaminophen in an opiate painkiller to 325 mg per pill because of the danger the high levels pose to those who abuse the drugs. However, Vicodin and other opioids continue to cause alarmingly high levels of overdoses and are at the center of the current opioid epidemic in the United States.

Someone experiencing an overdose from Vicodin may exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Uncontrollable vomiting
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Weak or irregular heartbeat
  • Respiratory depression or arrest
  • Bluish lips and fingernails, caused by respiratory issues and decreased oxygen in the blood
  • Coma

The symptoms of liver damage may include:

  • Nausea
  • A yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice)
  • Upper right abdominal pain
  • General malaise

Emergency help should be sought right away if a person shows any of these symptoms.

Damage To The Muscles and Kidneys

If a person becomes comatose, whether the result of long-term Vicodin abuse or overdose, they put themselves at risk for a life-threatening condition called rhabdomyolysis. This condition is a rapid breakdown of muscle tissue that is the result of the person being completely immobilized for an extended period due to their drug-induced coma. During their coma, a person’s muscles will compress and cause the tissues to disintegrate.

When this occurs, chemicals will pour into the bloodstream, which can cause a chain reaction of damage to other organs in the body. This process makes rhabdomyolysis a leading cause of kidney failure, and if dialysis isn’t started in time, the person can die. The condition may also cause damage to the heart and induce a heart attack.

The long-term chronic use of a painkiller like Vicodin can also have a more direct effect on the kidneys, which can require a dialysis or a transplant. Like with the liver, it is the acetaminophen in Vicodin that causes damage to the kidneys.

Damage To The Stomach and Intestines

While opioids are well known for their ability to cause constipation even at their prescribed dosage, the long-term abuse of the drugs could make a person need to rely on laxatives to move their bowels for years after ceasing to use the drug, or perhaps even the rest of their lives. Long-term abuse and constipation could also cause damage to the anus or sphincter, such as painful tears called fissures.

People with a Vicodin addiction may also suffer from a condition called narcotic bowel syndrome, or NBS. NBS is the result of constipation slowing down a person’s bowel function. This condition could cause nausea, bloating, vomiting, and further constipation.

Vicodin abuse can also cause a similar condition called gastroparesis, in which the flow of food from the stomach to the small intestine is slowed or stopped completely. Gastroparesis translates to “stomach paralysis.” This uncomfortable condition can lead to pain, excessive gas, bloating, heartburn, and weight loss.

In a cruel twist, being prescribed Vicodin or another opioid to treat stomach or abdominal pain as a result of an injury or cancer may make the pain worse instead of better. This pain can become quite severe, and can similarly be felt when a person abuses the drugs over a long period. Doctors should know not to prescribe an opioid in these situations.

Slowed Heart Rate and Heart Arrhythmias

As a depressant that affects the central nervous system, Vicodin naturally decreases a user’s heart rate. Like with the liver, abusing Vicodin with alcohol can be especially dangerous because of how it affects your heart rate. Taking too much can cause your heart rate to slow to the point of death.

Long-term abuse can also lead to heart arrhythmias, which are problems with the heart rhythm. Vicodin can cause heart arrhythmias by interrupting the electrical impulses that coordinate your heartbeats. When those signals don’t work properly, your heart may beat out of rhythm. When Vicodin is abused, it tends to slow the heart rate to a troubling pace, which can even be fatal.

Slowed or Irregular Breathing

Just as Vicodin can slow the heart, it can also slow your breathing. Respiratory depression is a common long-term side effect of Vicodin that may last long after a person stops abusing the drug.

An opioid-like Vicodin can cause users to breathe differently, typically more slowly, than they normally would. Long-term abuse of the drug will make this the person’s new normal. Problems can arise when Vicodin slows your breathing too much and limits the amount of air you are taking in.

Some people are more at risk than others for breathing issues, including those who have existing respiratory issues, such as smoking, sleep apnea, lung cancer, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Taking Vicodin with other drugs or alcohol can also slow your breathing even further.

Confusion, Memory Problems, Or Memory Loss

Vicodin long term effects include damage to your brain. This can cause you to have issues with memory loss, and an inability to focus as you once could. Long-term abusers of Vicodin may sometimes feel confused or disoriented.

Vicodin impacts the parts of the brain that control thought, memory and language. Long-term use can impact mental and physical function, and some may not come back as the person recovers from the painkiller addiction. The opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord may not recover after being fed massive doses of dopamine over a period.

Damage can also occur because of a lack of oxygen to the brain. If a person has abused Vicodin over a period, the brain may have been deprived of oxygen during the duration of their drug use, leading to the loss of memory and brain function.

The effects on a Vicodin user’s brain and lungs are closely related. Because the drug reduces a user’s breathing, it takes needed oxygen away from the brain. This hypoxia (a lack of oxygen) can cause neurons in the brain to die, which will reduce brain function, sometimes permanently.

Seizures or Convulsions

A dangerous Vicodin withdrawal symptom and side effect is seizures and convulsions. Vicodin can cause abnormal and excessive brain activity when it is being used. When it is removed from the system, the same can occur. Vicodin binds to opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord, and these receptors get used to having large amounts of dopamine fed to them. When it is lacking, a seizure or convulsion may occur.

A person may have a seizure or convulsion seemingly at random, long after they have stopped using the drug. The effect Vicodin has on the brain will vary from person to person, but long-term abuse will put people most at risk.

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