By Alice || Edited by Go Ask Alice Editorial Team || Last edited Nov 10, 2023
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Alice! Health Promotion. "What are the long-term effects of painkillers?." Go Ask Alice!, Columbia University, 10 Nov. 2023, https://goaskalice.columbia.edu/answered-questions/what-are-long-term-effects-painkillers. Accessed 24, May. 2024.

Alice! Health Promotion. (2023, November 10). What are the long-term effects of painkillers?. Go Ask Alice!, https://goaskalice.columbia.edu/answered-questions/what-are-long-term-effects-painkillers.

Dear Alice,

A couple of questions for you: what are the long-term side effects of one abusing prescription painkillers, such as Vicodin? What advice can you give to someone who has gotten off of them to help them stay off???

Thanks!

Dear Reader, 

These are great questions—thanks for asking them! Vicodin is a common prescription painkiller that contains a combination of two active ingredients, hydrocodone and acetaminophen, the former of which in considered an opioid. While the intended short-term use of hydrocodone often includes providing pain relief with the potential for experiencing some euphoria. Symptoms of long-term, unregulated use can range significantly and can even include death. For someone who has stopped their opioid use, they may find support through recovery communities, mental health professionals trained in substance use, or even through building or maintaining a supportive community. 

Many prescription painkillers belong to a class of drugs called opioids. They affect the central nervous system and can work well in relieving pain. However, if not used as prescribed or for a long duration, they can also cause a number of health concerns in both the short- and long-term. Some of these health concerns can include: 

  • Gastrointestinal issues 
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • A weakened immune system 
  • Bowel difficulties 
  • Neurological problems 
  • Heart concerns (including heart attacks) 
  • Substance abuse and addiction 
  • Overdose 

To reduce these concerns, most guidelines recommend that medical professionals only prescribe opioids for severe and necessary cases. Additionally, health care providers may only prescribe limited doses and strengths or prescribe a variety of non-opioid painkillers to reduce the need for higher doses of opioids. 

It can also be important to mention that substance use and addiction isn't a moral failing, and people from all walks of life experience opioid addiction. People with a previous substance use disorder may find that it’s helpful to avoid situations where they may be tempted to use in order to continue moving toward their goals. It may also be helpful to create a plan to manage these situations if they do arise. 

For someone who has stopped using opioids and is trying to stay abstinent from drugs, they may also find it helpful to remember that recovery may not be a linear path. However, with the support and encouragement of family, friends, or chosen support groups; access to medical treatment (as appropriate); and regular check-ins with a mental health professional, they may find it easier to avoid returning to use. Stopping drug use can be a challenge, so acknowledging and celebrating even the smallest things can help. 

Additional resources to assist with quitting or support for maintaining sobriety may also be available. The American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry provides a database for providers that treat opioid use disorder. The American Addiction Centers also provides information about free and confidential addiction hotlines that a person can call if they want to talk about their opioid use or recovery from substance abuse. The hotline might refer someone to local treatment options or simply be there to listen. The National Institute on Drug Abuse also has a fact sheet about the costs of various opioid treatments

Finally, naloxone is available for purchase and in some instances for free to use as a lifesaving tool to reverse an opioid overdose. Not only can carrying naloxone help someone experiencing an overdose get support, but it may also help to reduce the stigma attached to drug use. To find a naloxone emergency kit, the National Community-Based Naloxone Finder has a map of harm reduction centers in the United States. Additionally, it's now available without a prescription and can often be purchased at a wide variety of locations, including drug stores, grocery stores, and even online. 

If you continue to be concerned about the long-term effects of opioid use, meeting with a health care provider may help you to find additional support. You may also use this time to ask more questions about the effects and symptoms specific to your situation so you can work with them to plan what steps can be taken to support you. Working towards recovery and maintaining it is possible, and having some support systems in place can help. Wishing you all the best.  

Additional Relevant Topics:

Substance Use and Recovery
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