What Are the Signs of OxyContin Addiction?

OxyContin is a potent painkiller that has helped many people. But when misused it can be addictive, and OxyContin dependency is one of the primary reasons why America is in the midst of an opioid addiction and overdose epidemic. While most people use OxyContin safely, it is important to recognize the signs of OxyContin addiction so treatment services can be offered before a catastrophe occurs.

More than 63,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdose in 2016. That is about double the number from 10 years earlier, and drug overdose has now surpassed automobile crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in the United States.

The reason for this explosion in drug-related fatalities is no mystery. The growing popularity, availability, and abuse of prescription opioid painkillers has sent the numbers rocketing skyward. Most overdose deaths now involve opioid drugs, which are highly addictive when taken excessively or without a prescription.

Deaths by heroin overdose are contributing to the numbers as well, but the comeback of this illicit opioid is a direct consequence of the expanded supply of and demand for opioid medications, which can be used interchangeably with heroin. The latter is cheaper and more widely available than the prescription alternative, and many people who’ve developed a dependency on painkillers have shifted to heroin as a way to control costs and guarantee access to opioids.

From the 1990s to today, no medication has had greater impact on the current epidemic of opioid addiction than oxycodone, sold primarily under the brand name OxyContin. It was the explosive growth in prescriptions for OxyContin that started the opioid painkiller craze, and despite changes in formulation OxyContin is still a major part of the problem.

The Story of OxyContin in America

When OxyContin came on the market in the 1990s, Purdue Pharmacy (the manufacturer) claimed it was both potent and safe. Oxycodone, the principle ingredient in the medication, is a semi-synthetic opioid closely related to morphine, and it is a stronger painkiller than hydrocodone, which is the active ingredient in the widely prescribed medication Vicodin.

Given to patients experiencing moderate-to-severe chronic pain, OxyContin did in fact bring relief to thousands and eventually millions of people, who were grateful to have it. But despite its initial efficacy, OxyContin proved to be far more addictive than advertised, and as its use became more common the number of people dependent on OxyContin (and other oxycodone-based medications) continued to multiply.

And the problem is not confined to the overuse of OxyContin for pain. When taken for recreational purposes OxyContin has deeply relaxing and euphoric effects and diversion of these medications for recreational use is a major reason why addiction and overdose rates soared in the mid-2000s.

In the early stages of the opioid epidemic, OxyContin was undoubtedly the most frequently misused and abused opioid painkiller. While most people who used the drug under medical supervision did so responsibly, the dramatic proliferation of legal OxyContin prescriptions made it easier for people to steal or borrow OxyContin pills, or purchase supplies of the drug that had been diverted to the black market.

In part because of the expense of OxyContin, and the release of crush-proof and extended-release versions that were designed to make the drug harder to abuse, OxyContin addiction and overdoses now make up a declining percentage of the drug problems traceable to opioids. Nevertheless, because all opioids can be used interchangeably OxyContin abuse has played a significant role in the comeback of heroin, which offers a cheaper fix for those who need opioids to make it through the day—and OxyContin itself remains highly addictive and widely abused, despite the introduction of tamper-proof and controlled-dosage versions.

Symptoms and Side Effects of OxyContin Abuse

Early indications of OxyContin dependency may be difficult to spot, since the symptoms of addiction mimic the normal side effects of oxycodone use, only in a slightly stronger form. Part of the reason why addiction develops in the first place is that the initial signs are subtle and easy to overlook or deny. By the time things become more obvious, drug dependency may be well-entrenched.

The telltale symptoms include:

  • Chronic fatigue or lethargy
  • All-day drowsiness
  • Loss of interest in formerly pleasurable activities
  • Mood swings, from depression to euphoria
  • Short-term memory problems
  • Confusion and a lack of mental sharpness in general
  • Constant dry mouth
  • Itchy skin
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite likely accompanied by significant weight loss
  • Sleep disruptions (sleeping too long, too little, or at odd hours)

These reactions are signs of a drug dependency gradually taking control, and as the situation worsens the person with the drug use disorder will not be able to meet their life responsibilities.

As workers, partners, parents, and citizens, they will become increasingly inattentive, ineffectual, or neglectful, and the people they love may suffer because of it. They may even resort to criminal activities to obtain supplies of the drug they crave, and that is a sure sign of life—and a drug problem—running out of control.

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OxyContin Tolerance and the Risk of Withdrawal

One of the defining characteristics of a burgeoning OxyContin addiction is growing tolerance for the drug. Users will have to take more and more OxyContin to experience the same effects, and if oxycodone products aren’t available they won’t hesitate to use any other opioids they can find, including heroin.

The desperation for OxyContin that follows an escalating pattern of consumption manifests as physical and psychological cravings for the drug, to the point where it becomes an obsession. Should the person affected by OxyContin addiction attempt to stop using the drug on their own, without any preparation or medical plan for gradual tapering, they will begin experiencing withdrawal symptoms within a few hours.

On the first day, OxyContin withdrawal may imitate a nasty case of the flu, creating symptoms that might include a runny nose, chills, muscle pain, whole-body fatigue, sleep disturbances and nightmares, and intense nausea. As withdrawal deepens and intensifies, the sufferer may experience agitation, panic, or strong feelings of discomfort, which will affect their interactions with others as they struggle to cope and control their moods and emotions.

OxyContin withdrawal is not life-threatening, but its symptoms are so unpleasant and overwhelming that they significantly increase the chances of relapse.

The Deadly Threat of OxyContin Overdose

The dramatic increase in drug overdose deaths in the United States has largely been driven by opioid abuse. Of the more than 63,000 people who succumbed to the fatal effects of drugs in 2016, two-thirds were killed by excessive consumption of opioids, with OxyContin, fentanyl, and heroin as the leading causes of death.

If nothing is done to halt the progression of their addiction, people abusing OxyContin and other opioids are at grave risk for overdose. Because they are central nervous system depressants, opioids suppress both respiratory functioning and heart rate, either of which can lead to death if these effects become too advanced—as is the case when people overdose on OxyContin. Growing tolerance for the drug eventually makes overdose highly likely, and when overdoses occur there is no way to predict ahead of time who will survive and who will not.

Between 2016 and 2017, the number of people admitted to emergency rooms in the U.S. demonstrating the symptoms of opioid overdose shot up by an alarming 30 percent. Some of this is undoubtedly traceable to increased awareness of the threat—people experiencing the signs of opioid overdose, and their companions, have learned to anticipate trouble and are acting more quickly when it occurs. But this statistic also shows that the opioid crisis is still going strong and still claiming an extraordinary number of victims.

The warning signs of an OxyContin overdose include the following:

  • Slow or shallow breathing
  • Bluish tint to lips or extremities
  • Snoring or gurgling sounds while sleeping
  • Mental confusion and disorientation
  • Dramatically lower pulse rate
  • A drop in blood pressure
  • Extreme lethargy and drowsiness
  • Unresponsiveness to sensory stimuli
  • Loss of consciousness

When the signs of an overdose are evident, emergency assistance should be requested immediately. First responders can save OxyContin overdose victims by administering the drug Narcan (naloxone), which can halt the progress of the overdose until further medical services can be provided.

OxyContin addiction isn’t synonymous with overdose, and the latter can be experienced without the former. Nevertheless, the chances of a drug overdose increase dramatically when drug dependency develops, and this is just another reason why rapid and early OxyContin addiction treatment is desirable.

Treatment Saves Lives

Drug treatment isn’t going to reverse the opioid crisis. That is a matter of public policy and a concern for society as a whole.

But for those who are addicted to OxyContin and other opioids, treatment is the first and most important step back to wellness, and back to a safe and sustainable lifestyle. It may also be essential for their survival since opioid addiction has proven to be a fatal condition for many.

OxyContin addiction treatment usually begins with medical detox, which is necessary to break the physical and psychological hold opioids gain over those who abuse them. From there people with opioid use disorders will move on to formal inpatient or intensive outpatient treatment programs, where therapy, medication, holistic healing practices, life skills training, and other targeted interventions can help them regain their personal autonomy.

OxyContin is a potent painkiller that has helped many people cope with significant and debilitating pain. But those who abuse the drug are putting their lives in danger, and when OxyContin addiction develops action must be taken quickly before the consequences become severe and irreversible.