Medically Approved

How to use hydrocodone responsibly

Woman looking at medication label

This opioid is a powerful — and effective — pain medication. But it has a high potential for addiction. If you have a hydrocodone prescription in hand, here’s what you need to know about keeping yourself safe and the alternatives you might consider.

Loren Freed

By Loren Freed

Dealing with pain — no matter the cause — isn’t fun. Maybe you had a procedure such as a root canal or back surgery. Or you have a painful injury or chronic condition such as cancer. Thankfully, doctors have an arsenal of medications to help you handle the hurt and get on with your life.

The problem is that some of those medications are potentially addictive. Namely, opioids such as hydrocodone. And they continue to have devastating effects on people and communities around the country.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that in 2017, 1.7 million Americans suffered from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers. And nearly 30% of people who were prescribed opioids for chronic pain misused them.

Hydrocodone-acetaminophen was once the most prescribed medication in the U.S. Today, it’s still very popular for addressing moderate to severe pain. And that’s because it works. But it can also be deadly if used incorrectly.

Avoid the risks of hydrocodone misuse by arming yourself with information. Learn how hydrocodone works, how to use it correctly and what your alternatives for pain relief may be. And if you’re on your way to the pharmacy to fill a prescription, take this medication discount card with you. You could save up to 80%.

How does hydrocodone work in the body?

When you stub your toe, your body releases its own natural painkillers to muffle pain. It also gives you a powerful sense of well-being. One main group is called endorphins. (Fun fact: You can give yourself an endorphin boost by taking a brisk walk or enjoying a good belly laugh.)

These natural hormones work on your nervous system, explains Kerry Horan, PharmD. He’s a clinical pharmacist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire. These hormones connect with the opioid receptors in your spinal cord and brain. Once there, they slow down the pain messages that your body (or in this case, your toe) sends to your brain. They also alter your brain’s emotion center. This creates feelings of pleasure, relaxation and contentment.

Opioids such as hydrocodone mimic this process. Just as a key fits into a lock, prescription opioids fit into the same opioid receptors as endorphins and other hormones.

Why do some people become addicted to opioids?

Over time, hydrocodone and other opioids can change how the nerve cells in your brain work. And this can alter the way you perceive and respond to pain.

When you take opioids, your brain can get used to having those extra feel-good chemicals around. And when the opioid dose wears off, you may feel compelled to get that good feeling back again.

Most people will develop some level of tolerance to their opioid dose over time. This is when you need a higher dose to get the same effect. Many times, doctors won’t increase the dose or renew a prescription. And this can drive some people to turn to illegal opioids or drugs such as heroin.

What are the risk factors of becoming addicted to opioids?

Anyone can develop an opioid addiction. It’s important to know that opioid misuse is complex. Overcoming addiction is not simply a matter of willpower.

That said, not everyone who takes hydrocodone becomes addicted. And experiences with it vary greatly. Certain factors can put you at greater risk. They include:

  • Prolonged duration of use. Taking opioids over a long period, even more than 5 days, can make it harder to stop.
  • High-dose opioids. Either the doctor prescribes a high-dose opioid, or the person takes a higher dose than what’s prescribed.
  • Increased frequency. A person takes opioids more often than prescribed so that more is in their system.

Other personal factors can put you at risk, too. Talk to your doctor about your health and personal history before taking a prescribed opioid. Some personal factors that can increase your addiction risk include:

  • Being young (between 18 and 25 years old)
  • Having a personal or family history of substance misuse, including alcohol and tobacco
  • Having a history of severe depression or anxiety
  • Stressful life events or a stressful social environment

How can I use my prescribed hydrocodone effectively?

First, talk with your doctor about the pros and cons of taking a prescribed opioid. Make sure you understand why your doctor is prescribing it and what your alternatives may be. (More on that later.)

If you’re given a hydrocodone prescription, ask your doctor or pharmacist how often you should take the medication. And understand when you should stop. “Take the medication at the lowest effective dose and on an as-needed basis,” says Horan. “For chronic pain patients, responsible use is to take only as prescribed and at the lowest effective dose.”

If you don’t end up using all the tablets you were given, make sure you dispose of them properly. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the best way to dispose of unused medications is through a drug take-back program. Ask your local pharmacist about the options in your area.

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What side effects should I be aware of?

Hydrocodone and other opioids impact many body systems. As with any other medication, they can cause side effects.

Hydrocodone changes the way you perceive and respond to pain. So it can also depress or slow down your central nervous system (CNS). This is what makes opioids so dangerous when taken differently than prescribed.

Symptoms of CNS depression can range from mild (for example, dizziness and blurred vision) to life-threatening. Examples include a reduced heart rate and difficulty breathing. Misusing opioids can also lead to organ damage.

Talk to your doctor if you notice these or any other side effects:

  • Constipation
  • Stomach pain
  • Tiredness
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Nausea, vomiting or dizziness

I may have formed a dependency on hydrocodone. How do I wean off?

Tapering off gradually is the best way to prevent uncomfortable side effects and withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can feel a lot like the flu — but worse. You may experience aching, fever, sweating, shaking or chills.

When you’re stopping a prescribed opioid, your health care team will monitor you and make sure you’re doing it safely. How quickly you wean off will depend on how long you’ve used the medication. If you’ve been using hydrocodone for chronic pain, your doctor will most likely ask you to reduce your dose by 1 tablet (or other dosage unit) monthly, says Horan.

Having a hard time weaning yourself off? You’re not alone. Talk to your health care team about what you can do, or take, to make the transition easier.

Alternative and complementary medication

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to managing pain. Below are some research-backed alternatives to opioids that can help you manage pain in the short or long term.

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers. These include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil®) and naproxen (Aleve®). They also include acetaminophen (Tylenol®). The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that both NSAIDs and acetaminophen may provide similar pain relief to opioids, with fewer risks.
  • Mindfulness and meditation techniques. (Here are 8 easy mindfulness practices to try.)
  • Physical treatments, such as acupuncture, massage and physical therapy.
  • Movement therapies, such as yoga and tai chi.

Some people with chronic pain also find that working with a therapist helps them manage their thoughts and mood. If you have pain in a specific area, it may be worth talking to your doctor about spot-specific treatments. These include injections and patches.

Finding the right pain-control option for your needs can take some effort. Do your research and work with your health care provider to find the best solution for you. And if that solution involves prescription medication, be sure to use the Optum Perks discount app. It can help you find, save and share medication coupons. It can also help you find the best prices at pharmacies near you.


Additional sources
Opioid misuse facts: National Institute on Drug Abuse
How to dispose of unused medications: U.S. Food and Drug Administration
How over-the-counter pain relievers compare to opioids: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality