Can Oxycodone Kill You?
Oxycodone is a powerful opioid medication that has a high potential for abuse and addiction. Taking too much can quickly turn deadly, so it’s important to know how this potent drug works and why its effects can kill you. Recognizing the symptoms of an oxycodone overdose could save your life or the life of someone you love, and getting professional help is the best way to end the vicious cycle of addiction.
What Is Oxycodone?
Oxycodone is an opioid drug and the primary active ingredient in many prescription painkillers, including OxyContin, Roxicodone, Percocet, and Xtampza. Oxycodone products are typically prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain. In the past, oxycodone was used to help patients cope with chronic pain, but due to improved understanding of the drug’s addictive potential, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) now strongly advises against using oxycodone for long-term management of chronic pain.
The pharmacologic effects of oxycodone extend beyond pain relief, however, and many people abuse these medications in order to experience a euphoric high. Prescription opioids like oxycodone can produce a high that is very similar to other extremely addictive drugs, like heroin. Unfortunately, the effects of oxycodone can quickly turn from blissful to deadly, and overdose death rates have been rapidly rising in recent years.
Effects on the Brain and Body
The primary intended effect of oxycodone products is pain relief, though many side effects can accompany this sensation, particularly when the medication is abused. Oxycodone works by binding to and activating opioid receptors in the brain. This reduces the user’s sense of pain as well as their emotional response to pain, inducing a relaxing state of calm.1
Prescription opioids like oxycodone can produce a high that is very similar to other extremely addictive drugs, like heroin.
When a person ingests high doses of oxycodone, they may experience an overwhelming sense of euphoria. Coupled with the pain-relieving properties mentioned above, this high can feel extremely comforting to the user, but it may mask other effects that can pose a threat to the user’s life. Medications containing oxycodone can have extremely dangerous effects on the user, including:1
- Very low blood pressure.
- Slowed or stopped heartbeat.
- Slowed or stopped breathing.
- Cerebral hypoxia and increased pressure of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).
- Extreme nausea or vomiting.
- Severe dizziness.
- Overdose, which can result in death.
These side effects can range from uncomfortable to lethal, depending on the dose, method of use, and user’s tolerance level. Methods of ingestion that could potentially speed the onset of effects, like snorting or injecting the drug, may put the user at a higher risk of overdose, though this depends largely on the dose and potency of the product prepared to be misused in this manner. On top of the risks associated with oxycodone alone, many of these medications contain other pharmaceutical agents, such as acetaminophen, that can have damaging effects on the body when taken in excess. Taking these medications outside of a doctor’s guidelines puts the user at risk of experiencing long-lasting consequences to their physical health.
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Prescription Opioid Abuse
Almost 4 million people reported misusing oxycodone products in the U.S. in 2016, with nearly 1.5 million of these people specifically misusing OxyContin.2 Fortunately, the rate of prescription opioid abuse significantly declined between 2015 and 2016, potentially due to the increased national efforts being made to enforce stricter prescribing practices.2 Unfortunately, these rates are still extremely high, and society will continue suffering the consequences until more progress is made in reducing them.
22,598 people died from opioid painkiller-related overdoses in 2015 alone, and the number of fatal overdoses has been consistently rising each year for the past 17 years.3 The United States is facing an opioid overdose epidemic, with countless people having developed addictions to painkillers or heroin, and many who have already lost their life to this powerful addiction. The only way to escape this dangerous cycle of abuse and overdose is to get help as soon as possible.
Opioid overdose is tragically common. The effects that oxycodone has on the central nervous system can turn a relaxing high into a struggle to stay alive. Breathing and heart rate can come to a complete stop, and the overdosing person may lose consciousness completely or be so sedated that they are unable to recognize the extreme danger that they are in. While it is possible to survive an oxycodone overdose, your brain and body can suffer severe consequences related to lack of oxygenated blood delivery, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll survive the next one.
Taking oxycodone exactly as prescribed can be a safe and effective means of pain management. On the other hand, abusing this potent medication, meaning taking it in higher doses or more frequently than prescribed (or without a prescription altogether), is an extreme risk that could cost you your life. Symptoms of an oxycodone overdose include:4
- Severe drowsiness.
- Muscle weakness.
- Extreme confusion.
- Shallow or stopped breathing.
- Slow or stopped heart rate.
- Cold or clammy skin.
- Pinpoint pupils.
If you ever suspect that you or someone near you may be experiencing an oxycodone overdose, call 911 for emergency help right away. Professional medical responders are the best equipped to handle an opioid overdose, and waiting to call for help could mean the difference between life and death.
If you live in a state or area where naloxone is available in pharmacies, it may be useful to keep some on hand if you or people you know are opioid users. Naloxone blocks the brain’s receptors for opioid drugs like oxycodone and can reverse the deadly symptoms of an overdose if administered early enough. Naloxone on its own is not always an adequate treatment for an opioid overdose, and even if you have given a dose to the overdosing individual, you should still seek medical help.
Naloxone on its own is not always an adequate treatment for an opioid overdose.Some oxycodone products contain other medications that can cause damage to the user if taken in high doses. For example, acetaminophen is found in some oxycodone pain relievers (Percocet, Roxicet, and several generic combinations) and in high doses it can result in severe hepatic injury and, ultimately, liver failure if not treated.4 Overdose on an oxycodone medication may be compounded by the subsequent overdose on these other medications, which can make an already disastrous medical situation worse.
Beyond the risk of overdose or unpleasant side effects, chronic opioid abuse take a cumulative toll on your health and wellbeing. Addiction is a major risk when it comes to oxycodone abuse. Opioids have a high potential for addiction, and many people who abuse them may fall into a pattern of use that spirals quickly into a full-blown addiction. They may begin to neglect responsibilities, fall into legal trouble, damage interpersonal relationships, and isolate themselves in their drug use.
Other notable potential consequences of long-term abuse of oxycodone may include:5–9
- Changes in brain areas related to executive functioning, which can impact one’s ability to follow through on a plan and make it even more difficult to reach out for help.
- Deficits in brain functioning related to emotional control and motivation, which can make it difficult to recognize when and how to get help.
- Severe respiratory depression which can lead to hypoxia, or lack of oxygen in the body and brain.
- Neonatal abstinence syndrome, which is when a baby is born with a dependence on opioids.
- Progression to heroin use, as it tends to be cheaper and easier to find on the streets than prescription opioids.
Tolerance and Dependence
Oxycodone addiction can start in many different ways. Some people were initially prescribed the medication to help them manage their acute pain and began to misuse the drug over time. Others took the drug without a prescription, perhaps from a friend or family member. No matter how a person’s oxycodone abuse began, they run a high risk of developing the compulsive, problematic behaviors of addiction.
As a person uses oxycodone in higher doses or more frequently than prescribed, or without a prescription at all, they may find that the same dose does not give them the same high. They will start to need more and more of the drug in order to feel the same effects. This is called building a tolerance to the drug, and it can quickly turn dangerous. As doses increase, so does the risk of overdose.
Eventually, an oxycodone user may find that they need the drug in order to feel normal. Alternatively, they find that if they do not take oxycodone they experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. People in this situation are said to have developed physiological oxycodone dependence, which then further feeds into the cycle of abuse and addiction. It means their body has gotten so used to the presence of oxycodone that it struggles to function normally without it. Dependence can lead to escalating patterns of abuse and is a major contributor to relapse.
Detox and Withdrawal
The first step toward recovery from oxycodone abuse or addiction is to detox your body. Detoxification, or detox, is when you clear your body of all drugs through extended abstinence. During detox, you may experience some uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Many describe these symptoms as being like a terrible flu, and they may begin to show up anywhere from 8 to 48 hours after the last dose.8 While not necessarily deadly, oxycodone withdrawal can be extremely unpleasant, and for those who have preexisting health issues the withdrawal syndrome can introduce some complications.
Oxycodone withdrawal symptoms can include:8
- Abdominal cramping.
- High body temperature.
- High blood pressure.
- Rapid heartbeat.
- Clammy skin.
- Muscle spasms.
- Muscle and bone pain.
- Extreme headache.
Because the opioid withdrawal syndrome can be so uncomfortable, some people may feel tempted to relapse simply to make the discomfort stop. This is one reason that professional addiction treatment can make a huge difference. Addiction treatment programs are staffed by professionals with experience treating opioid addiction. They will know what to expect and how to help you get through it as safely and comfortably as possible.
Some programs offer medications to help relieve withdrawal symptoms during detox. Medically-assisted detox can help you control symptoms and manage cravings so that you can get clean and begin recovery. Symptoms such as insomnia, muscle and bone pain, stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, headaches, and vomiting can be managed by a number of medications, which can be specially selected to work for you.8 Common medications used to help during opioid detox include:8
- Clonidine: This is a non-opioid medication that can relieve some of the opioid withdrawal symptoms such as sweating, chills, and racing pulse, but it may not do much to reduce the cravings.
- Methadone: This is an opioid agonist medication that activates a similar set of receptors as the abused opioid drugs. It is carefully dosed and administered to help relieve cravings without the intense rush. As an opioid drug itself, if it is abused it can be similarly dangerous.
- Buprenorphine: This is a partial opioid agonist medication that binds to the same receptors as opioids but only partially activates them. This helps relieve cravings and has a lower potential for abuse than methadone.
Detox is not the same as recovery. Though the detox period is a necessary hurdle to overcome, once your body is cleared of oxycodone and its immediate toxic influences, the real healing begins. Addressing the issues that led you to abuse oxycodone in the first place is a vital part of addiction recovery. There are many different approaches that can help you develop personal skills and habits to keep you clean and safe. Every treatment program will take a different approach, so it is important to find the one that works for you and meets your individual needs.
There are several therapeutic approaches with research-demonstrated effectiveness at helping people who struggle with opioids like oxycodone. These include:10
- Community reinforcement: This is an intense outpatient therapy program that runs for 24 weeks. It can help you learn to recognize the value and rewards of living a life without drugs.
- Contingency management: This is also called “motivational incentives,” and it involves earning tangible rewards for meeting recovery goals, such as providing a clean urine test or reaching a certain number of days sober.
- 12-step facilitation: This approach introduces those in recovery to 12-step programs (such as Narcotics Anonymous) and encourages attendance of support group meetings in addition to other counseling and treatment sessions. Upon completion of a treatment program, continued 12-step program participation can be an invaluable recovery tool in promoting abstinence and providing ongoing peer support.
Doctors at professional treatment programs can also prescribe medications to help you maintain long-term sobriety. These drugs aren’t necessary for everyone, but some people, particularly those suffering with chronic pain, have an especially difficult time staying abstinent. Methadone and buprenorphine are common medications for long-term sobriety maintenance.11
Another medication that can be used to help with recovery is naltrexone, which is available in pill form (Depade) and as a monthly injection (Vivitrol).12 Naltrexone works by blocking opioid receptors and thereby preventing the user from experiencing any kind of opioid high. Naltrexone doesn’t help with cravings, but it can be useful for someone who struggles with resisting relapse.
Suboxone is another drug used in opioid treatment programs that is a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone—the opioid antagonist used to reverse the effects of overdose.13 Suboxone works in two ways: the buprenorphine helps reduce cravings, but the naloxone prevents you from feeling any rewarding high if you try to abuse the medication by taking a large dose. This is a great option for those who know that they may have difficulty maintaining an abstinent lifestyle.
Combining carefully monitored medication with therapy has been found to be one of the most effective approaches to opioid addiction recovery.11,12 This combination approach is known as medically-assisted therapy, or MAT.
It’s Not Too Late
Oxycodone can be extremely addictive and quitting isn’t easy, but there is help available to get you on the path to recovery. Life free from addiction is full of hope and opportunity; all you have to do is reach out before it’s too late. End the cycle of addiction today.
- Center for Substance Abuse Research. (2013). Oxycodone.
- Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2017). 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Overdose Death Rates.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.) Drug Fact Sheet: Oxycodone.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Research report series: Heroin.
- Patrick, S., Davis, M., Lehman, C., et. al. (2015). Increasing incidence and geographic distribution of neonatal abstinence syndrome: United States 2009 to 2012. Journal of Perinatology, 35(8), 667.
- Compton, W., Jones, C., Baldwin, G. (2016). Relationship between nonmedical prescription-opioid use and heroin use. New England Journal of Medicine, 374, 154–163.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2006). Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 45. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 13-4131. Rockville, MD.
- Upadhyay, J., Maleki, N., Potter, J., et. al. (2010). Alterations in brain structure and functional connectivity in prescription opioid-dependent patients. Brain, 133(7), 2098–2114.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.
- Kleber, H. (2007). Pharmacologic treatments for opioid dependence: detoxification and maintenance options. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 9(4), 455–470.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Naltrexone.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Buprenorphine.