Both alcohol and prescription opioids, such as hydrocodone, are frequently abused in the U.S. The risks of using either substance by themselves are significant, but these risks are increased even further when the two substances are combined. Moreover, using hydrocodone with alcohol is not recommended under any circumstance and can lead to life-threatening outcomes.
What Is Hydrocodone?
Hydrocodone (e.g., Norco, Vicodin, Lortab) is a prescription painkiller often combined with acetaminophen, an over-the-counter pain reliever and Tylenol’s active ingredient. Opioids attach to and block some of the brain’s nerve receptors and are frequently prescribed to treat moderate-severe pain.
Acetaminophen’s precise mechanism of action is not wholly understood, but experts believe it may reduce the production of prostaglandins, brain chemicals that can cause swelling and inflammation.
Common side effects of hydrocodone use include sedation, dizziness, nausea, and constipation. There is also the potential for additional, more severe symptoms effects to occur, including the following:
- Breathing issues
- Decreased heart rate
- Stomach pain
- Depression and mood swings
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports that hydrocodone is the most often prescribed opioid in the United States. And, unfortunately, its potential to produce euphoric feelings and sedation make it attractive to potential recreational users.
With the extended use of hydrocodone, a physiological dependence can develop, characterized by withdrawal symptoms when the person discontinues using the medication. As an individual’s tolerance to the drug develops, increasing amounts are required to achieve the desired effects.
At this point, the individual may then start to increase the dosage or change the route of administration (e.g., crushing tablets and snorting the residual powder) and begin engaging in an escalating pattern of abuse that can quickly result in addiction.
According to a survey issued by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA, 2015), more than 85 percent of persons aged 18 and older reported consuming alcohol at some point in their lives. In fact, heavy drinking is a concerning problem in the United States, as the same survey found that more than 25 percent of people also stated they engaged in past-month binge drinking.
Alcohol use disorders (AUDs) are hallmarked by problematic alcohol use and manifest due to chronic drinking. An estimated 95,000 individuals (around 68,000 men and 27,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes each year, making alcohol the third-leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. behind smoking and poor diet/inactivity.
Using Hydrocodone With Alcohol Affects the Liver
Combining a narcotic such as hydrocodone with alcohol can be risky for several reasons. First, as with any drug containing acetaminophen, drinking alcohol in conjunction with it can lead to severe liver damage. In fact, hydrocodone products are packaged with warning labels regarding their acetaminophen content and potential corresponding liver problems.
If acetaminophen and alcohol are combined, this can lead to alcohol-acetaminophen syndrome (AAS). AAS is characterized by increased amounts of the liver protein transaminase that aids in metabolism. This effect is a warning sign the liver is overburdened in its efforts to break down both the alcohol and acetaminophen, which can cause severe liver damage or failure.
Other Dangers of Combining Hydrocodone With Alcohol
Unfortunately, although acetaminophen presents significant risks when used in conjunction with alcohol, the pleasurable effects of hydrocodone increase impulsivity, lower inhibitions, and encourage polydrug use—and it just so happens that alcohol is a popular go-to intoxicant as a secondary substance.
Concurrent use of these two substances can lead to the following symptoms:
- Impaired judgment
- Impaired motor skills
- Respiratory issues
- Excessive sedation
- Coma and death
Moreover, consuming alcohol while using any drug containing hydrocodone can lead to life-threatening effects. Alcohol accelerates and intensifies the release of hydrocodone into the system, leading to dangerously high levels of the drug in the body. Alcohol use also increases the drug’s absorption.
While many people often intentionally combine hydrocodone and alcohol, it can also happen inadvertently. Those using hydrocodone should confirm the alcohol content of any product they consume. For instance, something as seemingly harmless as over-the-counter cough syrup may contain alcohol, and even a standard dosage can cause a significant reaction when used in conjunction with hydrocodone.
Finally, operating a car or other machinery can be risky after consuming either hydrocodone or alcohol, but doing so after ingesting a combination of both can be especially dangerous. This can result in impaired judgment and an individual making the poor decision to get behind the wheel. Also, impairment of motor skills can make it very challenging, if not impossible, for a person to safely operate a motor vehicle once they are on the road.
Treatment for Hydrocodone and Alcohol Abuse
Addiction to either hydrocodone or alcohol alone can have devastating effects, but combining the two amplifies these effects and makes their use even riskier and potentially life-threatening.
Those abusing hydrocodone with alcohol are urged to seek treatment at Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery. We offer comprehensive clinically proven services such as psychotherapy, counseling, substance abuse education, group support, mindfulness therapy, aftercare planning, and more.