How Long Does it Take to Get Addicted to Oxycodone?Anna Ciulla
Oxycodone is a semi-synthetic opiate agonist derived from the opium poppy plant. The drug—designated a Schedule 11 narcotic by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)—has been popular in America since the mid-20th century when it first became available in prescription form. Oxycodone exhibits the same highly addictive properties and deadly unpredictability associated with other opiates like heroin and morphine.
Patients who are legitimately prescribed oxycodone frequently suffer from intense cravings in its absence, prompting the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime to include it in The Dangerous Drugs Act of 1960. In subsequent decades, the drug’s popularity surged to epidemic proportions, and it now remains at the epicenter of a highly profitable black market. Patients who are denied legitimate prescriptions, or never seek proper medical treatment in the first place, can easily purchase the drug on the street or through the dark web.
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), in 2015, drug overdoses were the leading cause of accidental death in the US. That same year, approximately 55,000 people died as a result of drug overdoses—with approximately 21,000 related to narcotic painkillers. Between the years of 1999 and 2008, opiate-related overdose death rates, as well as sales and treatment program admissions, exponentially increased. Following the dramatic surge in oxycodone addiction and abuse in the mid-nineties, government authorities and scientists conducted extensive research that revealed the following:
- Prior to the introduction of OxyContin (a wildly popular, time-release version of the drug) in 1996, government authorities documented only 49 oxycodone-related fatalities.
- By 1999, government authorities documented 262 oxycodone-related fatalities.
- Illicit oxycodone is sold at an average market rate of $1 per milligram.
- In 2015, approximately 2 million Americans were addicted to prescription painkillers—a record high.
- Approximately 80 percent of heroin users first abused prescription painkillers, establishing a clear causal link as “gateway drugs.”
- In 2013, oxycodone was abused by approximately two percent of eight graders, three percent of 10th graders, and four percent of high school seniors within the previous year.
These statistics represent a public health menace and unsettling trend that continues to thrive despite intensified efforts by government, law enforcement, and public health agencies to find solutions. Even worse, they reveal how dangerously dependent American society has become on the pharmaceutical industry for effective pain management.
THE PATHOLOGY AND PROCESS OF OXYCODONE ADDICTION
Oxycodone’s addictive charms and inherent dangers should never be underestimated. Like other legal and illicit opiates, the drug alters brain chemistry, resulting in a series of negative psychological and physiological consequences. When ingested, oxycodone unleashes an artificial flood of neurochemicals that are part of the brain’s pleasure and reward system. The rush of endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and other “feel good” chemicals associated with this rush are extremely addictive, and many users describe the resulting pleasure as “euphoric,” “magical,” or “dream-like.” Unfortunately, this euphoria is short-lived, and, as it wears off, it leaves users feeling depressed, anxious, and chemically unstable, desperate for more of the drug. In order to re-attain the desired state, more oxycodone must be taken and thus begins a vicious, highly destructive cycle.
The process of adapting to the changes that oxycodone produces in a user’s system is called “tolerance,” and, for many people, what begins as tolerance quickly spirals out of control into full-blown addiction. Once chemically dependent on the drug, the body experiences withdrawal whenever it doesn’t receive it. Full-blown oxycodone addiction is considered by most experts to be the combination of chemical dependence on the drug and significant cravings that interfere in normal, healthy functioning.
It is extremely difficult—if not impossible—to establish exactly how long it takes for someone to become addicted to oxycodone. Many personal, professional, social and environmental factors all play a role in determining someone’s susceptibility. In certain users who enjoy relatively productive and happy lives, addiction may take weeks, or even months, to develop once experimentation begins. In others, greater genetic susceptibility, emotional, sexual, or psychological trauma, physical pain, or elevated stress levels (professional, marital, etc.) may converge—setting the stage for oxycodone addiction in as little as one use. Individual biology, age, gender, and numerous other factors all play a contributing role in oxycodone addiction and, subsequently, the intensity and duration of the withdrawal process.
As a general rule, oxycodone is addictive when taken in any manner other than exactly as prescribed. That said, users may erroneously feel that strict adherence to legitimate prescription uses exempts them from the possibility of addiction— but it doesn’t. Although prior substance abuse or a history of mental illness predisposes people to a greater risk of oxycodone addiction, they are not the only factors involved. Even in people with legitimate oxycodone prescriptions for pain management, the following factors significantly increase the risk of developing full-blown addiction and shorten the time it takes to cross that threshold:
- Taking higher doses of the drug than originally prescribed without authorization
- Taking more frequent doses than originally prescribed
- Chewing (to prevent controlled release), snorting, intravenous injection or other improper methods of ingestion
- Purchasing, on the street or black market, illicit oxycodone with an unknown chemical composition
RECREATIONAL USE – SHORT AND LONG-TERM EFFECTS
Despite oxycodone’s highly regulated Schedule 11 drug status and criminal penalties that include years of incarceration for sales and trafficking, an entire subculture of recreational users exists. In general, oxycodone is extremely popular among recreational drug users—especially adolescents. It enjoys a glamorized reputation on college campuses and continues to be abused on an unprecedented scale by those recovering from cancer or other causes of moderate to severe pain. Oxycodone is known for quickly penetrating the blood-brain barrier and typically reaches peak intensity within one hour of dosage. The resulting euphoria typically last between four and six hours before gradually subsiding.
One of the factors directly involved in how long it takes to become addicted to oxycodone is the drug’s half-life, which directly determines how long the drug remains in a user’s system. Oxycodone’s half-life refers to the amount of time it takes for approximately half of the drug to be eliminated from the system. Oxycodone’s relatively short half-life lasts between 3.5 to 5.5 hours and, in most cases, the drug will be completely eliminated from a user’s system in approximately 20 hours. If a user takes an additional dose of oxycodone too quickly following initial dosage, it increases the likelihood of there being an overdose or other negative health consequences— some of which could prove fatal. Oxycodone’s half-life is also important to understand in relation to drug testing and the therapeutic effect of the medication during short and long-term use.
Exact oxycodone dosages and formulations depend upon the overall medical and psychiatric condition of the individual receiving the prescription. OxyContin, an extended-release version of the drug, is available in dosages ranging anywhere from 5 to 160 mg, while its primary competitor, Percocet, is available in dosages ranging from between 2 and 10 mg. Popular oxycodone medications typically contain acetaminophen doses of 325mg for moderate to severe pain relief. In certain versions of the drug such as Tylox, capsules contain 5mg of oxycodone with 500 mg of acetaminophen for maximum pain relief. However, such intense dosage is cautiously prescribed and heightens the drug’s already serious addictive potential.
For those oxycodone users who become addicted to the drug, professional medical detox and withdrawal management are necessary to safely rid the body of its cumulative effects prior to undergoing successful treatment. Many oxycodone users begin with benign intentions of managing post-surgical or disease-related pain, but quickly find themselves unable to control cravings for more frequent use of the drug at higher doses. Safely and effectively eliminating oxycodone from the system requires a strategic approach and gradual weaning process. For those users who ignore professional medical advice and resort to self-guided or at home detox, serious consequences can be expected, and a much higher potential for relapse and re-addiction to the drug.
THE DECISION TO SEEK TREATMENT
If you or someone you love is addicted to oxycodone or showing warning signs, call a substance abuse professional today and begin the process of seeking help. The quality and longevity of life are both greatly impacted by this decision and, as multiple clinical studies have shown, oxycodone addiction responds best to early intervention. A wide range of effective, flexible treatment options exist, many of which may be a perfect fit for you or your loved one’s needs.
For more about oxycodone addiction and recovery, check out these related articles:
- “What You Need to Know About Painkiller Addiction”
- “Addiction to Oxycodone, Hydrocodone and Other Opiates: Warning Signs, Effects and Stats”
- “Prescription Opiate Detox: What to Expect from Withdrawal and Recovery”
- “Alternative Methods for Managing Pain Without Opiates”
- Journal of Pain and Symptom Management (JPSM). Oxycodone. May, 2005.
- Anesthesiology and Pain Management. Use of Oxycodone in Pain Management. April, 2012.
- American Journal of Public Health. The Promotion and Marketing of OxyContin: Commercial Triumph, Public Health Tragedy. Feb, 2009.
- BMC Anesthesiology. Comparison of analgesic effect of oxycodone and morphine on patients with moderate and advanced cancer pain: a meta-analysis. September, 2018.
- Palliative Medicine. A systematic review of Oxycodone in the management of cancer pain. June, 2011.
- Journal of Pain and Palliative Care Pharmacotherapy. The Pharmacokinetics of Oxycodone. August, 2009.