How Hydrocodone Is Used for Pain Management

What You Need to Know

A display of Hydrocodone at the Drug Enforcement Agency Museum (DEA) in Arlington, Virginia on August 25, 2015.. Credit: Paul J. Richards / Staff / Getty Images

Hydrocodone is an opioid painkiller used in combination with other ingredients including acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Different ingredient combinations are prescribed for different uses. For example, some hydrocodone combination medications are used for moderate to severe pain relief. Others are used to treat a cough. Any painkiller that contains hydrocodone requires a doctor's prescription.

Hydrocodone combined with acetaminophen is also known as Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet, Norco, Anesxia, Co-Gesic, Ceta-Plus, Hydrocet and Zydone.

When combined with ibuprofen, it is known as Vicoprofen.

How Hydrocodone Works

Hydrocodone is an opiate analgesic that is always taken in combination with at least one other type of medication. It works by changing the way the central nervous system responds to pain in the body. A hydrocodone combination that is used to treat a cough works by decreasing activity in the part of the brain that causes coughing.

It is available in both short-acting and long-acting, or extended release, forms of pain control. Hydrocodone products come in the forms of tablets, capsules and syrups. If you are prescribed hydrocodone, it is important that you take your medication exactly as instructed by your doctor.

Side Effects of Hydrocodone

Like all medications, hydrocodone has side effects. Contact your doctor immediately if any of these symptoms are severe or do not go away:

  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • constipation
  • anxiety and/or mood changes
  • confusion
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • difficulty urinating
  • dry mouth and throat
  • itching and/or rash

Other side effects are more serious. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience tightness in the chest or slowed or irregular breathing.

  • slowed or irregular breathing
  • chest tightness

Hydrocodone Abuse & Addiction

Hydrocodone is abused for its narcotic effects.

In fact, a growing number of teenagers abuse hydrocodone. The FDA reports that hydrocodone is most often abused in combination with alcohol. Hydrocodone abuse may lead to addiction or overdose.

If you take hydrocodone for chronic pain, you may have concerns about developing an addiction, which should not be confused with physical dependence. Dependence is when the body has become accustomed to the medication. The body needs the medication to function and may develop a tolerance. With addiction, however, it's implied that the medication is interfering with the individual's life in some way. Use of the drug is compulsive, regardless of any potential harm.

Your risk for developing a hydrocodone addiction is increased if you have any of the following:

  • mental health problems, including depression or PTSD
  • prior addiction history or family history of addiction
  • a sense of euphoria after taking the drug
  • genetic predisposition

Hydrocodone Overdose & Safety

If you feel the hydrocodone combination product you are taking is not relieving your symptoms, do not increase your dose yourself.

Talk to your doctor. Always take hydrocodone combination products exactly as instructed by your doctor. Do not take more of it, do not take it more frequently and do not take it longer than prescribed by your doctor.

Do not stop taking hydrocodone combination products without consulting your doctor first. It only takes a few weeks for the body to become accustomed to the medication, and quitting suddenly can lead to withdrawal symptoms. Talk to your doctor, who will help you quit the medication gradually and safely.

Like other opiates, hydrocodone can be habit-forming. Contact your doctor if you ever develop a desire to take more of it than directed. Abuse of and addiction to hydrocodone increases the risk of a hydrocodone overdose. To prevent an overdose, never take more medication that prescribed and never crush or chew hydrocodone, which can release too much medication into the bloodstream at once.


Medline Plus. Drug Dependence. Accessed 9/11/09.

Medline Plus. Hydrocodone. Accessed 9/11/09.

US Drug Enforcement Administration. Hydrocodone. Accessed 9/11/09.

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