What is Oxycodone?

Oxycodone has the greatest potential for abuse and the greatest dangers. It is as powerful as heroin and affects the nervous system in the same way. OxyContin may be the most recognized form of oxycodone, which is also sold under many trade names, such as Percodan, Endodan, Roxiprin, Percocet, Endocet, and Roxicet. There are up to 50 different drugs that include oxycodone as an active ingredient.

Oxycodone is a semi-synthetic opiate manufactured by modifying the chemical thebaine, an organic chemical found in opium. Each tablet contains oxycodone in small doses combined with other active ingredients, such as aspirin. It is similar to codeine and methadone in its analgesic (pain-killing) properties.

Intended for long-term relief (up to 12 hours) of severe pain, OxyContin is available in doses ranging in strength from 10mg to 80mg tablets. A unique property of OxyContin is that the tablets are time released, that is, the effects of the drug and its analgesic properties take effect over a set period of time rather than all at once. Oxycodone is often mixed with other analgesics, including acetaminophen and aspirin, to make short-acting pain medications. Neither oxycodone nor OxyContin should be taken for more than three to four months, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Oxycodone, like other opioid analgesics, tends to induce feelings of euphoria, relaxation and reduced anxiety in those who are occasional users. These effects make it one of the most commonly abused pharmaceutical drugs in the United States.

OxyContin abuse spread for a variety of reasons. First, the elevated opiate dosage makes it highly addictive. Second, in contrast to drugs such as cocaine or heroin that can be laced with other substances, OxyContin’s dosage is consistent, making it a dependable high. Finally, OxyContin is covered by most health insurance plans, so it is more affordable than street drugs for those covered by such plans.

Every age group has been affected by the illicit use of oxycodone and its perceived safety. Sometimes seen as a white collar addiction, oxycodone abuse has increased among all ethnic and economic backgrounds. OxyContin can be rather expensive. A 40mg tablet (prescribed by a doctor) costs approximately $4, but the street value (the cost when illegally obtaining the drug) can range in price from $25 to $40.

Based on statistical estimates by the US Department of Health and Human Services, about 11 million Americans will consume at least one dose of this opioid in a non-medical way. About 100,000 men or women per year are admitted to U.S. hospitals due to misuse of this drug, making it the most widely abused opioid drug in America.

From OxyContin to Heroin

Abuse of opiate-based prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and morphine peaked around 2010-2011 and now is on the decline in the United States. There has been a leveling-off in the rate of pain prescriptions being written since 2011 in every state except Missouri. New laws, programs and policies, such as prescription tracking systems and the reformulation of oxycodone to make it harder to abuse, maybe combining to reverse the once-growing trend.

As an example, the rate of oxycodone-caused deaths in Florida increased 118.3 percent from 2007 to 2010. However, death rates began to decline in 2010 due to a variety of factors, including the introduction of tamper-resistant oxycodone formulations, law enforcement crackdowns on pill mills and Florida House Bill 7095, which led to the closure of hundreds of illegitimate pain clinics. An additional 25 percent decrease in oxycodone-related deaths was directly attributed to the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which became law in 2009.

Even as the prescription painkiller problem may be leveling off, the nation is facing a new surge in the abuse of heroin and in fact, deaths from heroin overdose nearly tripled between 2010 and 2013. One theory is that those hooked on pain pills reach for heroin as prescriptions become harder to get. The problem is that while prescription pills are rigorously controlled for potency and purity, the same cannot be said for illegal drugs bought off the street. It's an important reminder that those struggling with painkiller addiction should seek help rather than a substitute.

Symptoms of Oxycodone withdrawal and overdose

The risk of experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms is high if a patient has become physically dependent or addicted and discontinues oxycodone abruptly. Therefore, use should be discontinued gradually rather than abruptly, particularly in cases where the drug has been taken regularly over an extended period. People who use oxycodone in a recreational, hazardous or harmful fashion (not as intended by the prescribing physician) are at even higher risk of severe withdrawal symptoms, as they tend to use higher-than-prescribed doses. The symptoms of oxycodone withdrawal are the same as for other opiate-based painkillers and may include anxiety, panic attack, nausea, insomnia, muscle pain, muscle weakness, fevers and other flu-like symptoms.

Oxycodone overdose occurs when someone intentionally or accidentally takes too much medicine containing the drug. The first thing that will likely occur is that they will become extremely sleepy. Depending on how much they take, this can range from struggling to stay awake to being completely unconscious.

The most dangerous complication of this type of overdose is its effect on breathing. An oxycodone overdose can cause the person’s breathing to become shallower and possibly stop depending on how much medication has been taken. The person’s pupils become extremely small. Doctors call this condition “pinpoint pupils” and it is often used to help identify an oxycodone overdose.

If the person receives medical attention before serious problems with their breathing occur, they should have few long-term consequences and will probably be back to normal in a day. However, this overdose can be deadly or can result in permanent brain damage if treatment is delayed and a large amount of oxycodone is taken.