Oxycontin is a prescription opioid used for treating pain that is not well managed by non-opioid pain medicines. Misuse of opioids such as Oxycontin can be habit-forming, addictive and even fatal. In fact, more than 100 Americans die from opioid overdose every day. It is important to learn about Oxycontin to use it safely and to recognize misuse.
What Is Oxycontin?
The main ingredient in Oxycontin is a long-acting formulation of oxycodone. However, the names Oxycontin and oxycodone are often used interchangeably. Oxycodone, also referred to as the “oxy drug,” is a morphine-like chemical derived from part of the opium plant. Oxycodone works by interacting with the central nervous system to trigger relaxation and pain relief.
The difference between Oxycontin and oxycodone is that Oxycontin only refers to the extended-release formulation. Oxycontin is meant to treat chronic pain. Oxycodone, the active ingredient in Oxycontin, is available by itself as an immediate-release (IR) formulation or in combination with other pain medications. Immediate-release formulations, such as Oxycontin IR, are for treating pain on an as-needed basis. Oxycodone 30 mg is the highest dose of IR oxycodone available. There is also an Oxycontin 30 mg dose, and the brand’s highest dose is Oxycontin 80 mg.
What Is Oxycontin Used For?
Oxycontin is used for severe, chronic pain. It is prescribed to patients with major injuries, cancer, arthritis and other conditions that require long-acting relief from pain. Oxycontin is also used for people with opioid tolerance. Opioid tolerance happens when a patient has been taking opioid medications for a long time. After a while, their bodies no longer respond to the opioid and higher doses are needed to relieve their pain. Oxycontin doses above 40 mg per tablet are reserved for these opioid-tolerant patients.
Since it provides up to 12 hours of relief, Oxycontin is only for chronic conditions. Immediate-release oxycodone must be taken every four to six hours to manage around-the-clock pain. For the same nonstop pain, a patient only needs to take Oxycontin twice a day.
If not taken correctly, a patient can become addicted to Oxycontin. The misuse or nonmedical use of Oxycontin can cause overdose and death. Chewing, crushing, snorting or injecting Oxycontin bypasses the extended-release mechanism. This causes a large, uncontrolled amount of oxycodone to be released into the body. The flood of oxycodone gets the individual high, but it also causes severe depression of bodily functions such as breathing.
Dosage and Administration
A safe maximum dose of Oxycontin a person should take per day has not been defined. However, there are some guidelines to follow. In general, it is recommended that Oxycontin doses start low and then be increased until the dose is high enough for pain relief but still low enough to avoid side effects. Patients who lack opioid tolerance should not take more than 80 mg of Oxycontin in one day.
Opioid-tolerant patients can be prescribed higher doses to achieve pain relief as long as they do not experience negative side effects. This amount is unique to the patient and should be closely monitored by a doctor. The risk of overdose and death is twice as high for patients taking more than 60 mg of Oxycontin in a day. However, there are case reports of individuals functioning well at close to 1000mg of Oxycontin in a day.
Regardless of the dose, it is important to take Oxycontin exactly as prescribed. Oxycontin pills (Oxy pills) are designed to release a steady amount of oxycodone into a person’s system over the course of 12 hours. For this reason, the pills must be swallowed one at a time, whole, with enough water to ensure that the pill makes it all the way down the throat. Taking Oxycontin any other way can lead to overdose and death.
What Does Oxycontin Look Like?
Oxycontin pills are small and round with numbers etched on them that indicate the strength of the pill. They may come in different colors, such as white, green and brown. If not in their original bottle, Oxycontin pills can be virtually impossible to tell apart from other medications by appearance alone, so people can disguise them easily. Pictures of Oxycontin can be found here.
Street Names for Oxycontin
Oxycontin goes by several other names. Sometimes it is called oxycodone, which is the generic name for the drug. People selling or buying Oxycontin on the street (without a prescription) might also call it:
- Hillbilly heroin
- Blue Oxy
- Oxy 30, Oxy 40s, Oxy 80s
- 30s, 40s, 80s
- Oxy cotton
Oxycontin Side Effects
The most common side effects of Oxycontin use are somnolence (sleepiness or drowsiness), nausea and constipation.
In some cases, Oxycontin can make existing medical conditions worse. This can include digestive disorders, mental illnesses like anxiety or depression and nervous system disorders like vertigo or migraine.
Oxycontin can also have euphoric effects. The high that Oxycontin can cause is the reason why many people continue to take it even when they no longer need it for pain relief.
Chronic pain is common in elderly individuals, so it is not surprising that many older people have opioid painkiller prescriptions. Older adults experience the same side effects of Oxycontin that younger people do, but they can be much more dangerous or debilitating in the elderly.
Oxycontin use can worsen other conditions that older individuals may have. There are a few more side effects that are especially common in older adults, such as:
- Urinary retention (inability to empty the bladder completely)
- Hyperalgesia (hypersensitivity to certain sensations or stimuli)
- Decreased bone mineral density
- Decreased libido
- Impaired sexual performance
Oxycontin has many physical effects on the body. These are especially common with higher doses of Oxycontin or prolonged use.
Common physical effects of Oxycontin include:
- Drowsiness or tiredness
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Pruritus (itchiness)
- Nausea or vomiting
- Dry mouth
- Hypotension (low blood pressure)
- Sleep apnea
- Asthenia (physical weakness)
- Stomach pain
When people take Oxycontin, it releases a neurotransmitter in their brain called dopamine. This chemical triggers feelings of pleasure and can make taking Oxycontin feel rewarding. The long-term effects of Oxycontin on the brain, however, are more problematic. It can cause psychological effects, such as:
The physical effects of Oxycontin misuse can lead to psychological effects as well. If someone overdoses on Oxycontin, they may stop breathing temporarily. Even if for a brief moment, this lack of oxygen to the brain can cause serious long-term brain damage.
How Long Does Oxycontin Stay in Your System?
Oxycontin is designed to stay in your system for a long time. Different formulations of oxycodone have variable release times and will last in your system for different lengths of time as a result. For example, immediate-release oxycodone gets in and out of your bloodstream fairly quickly. However, Oxycontin is designed with a long-lasting, slow-release formula, which is gradually absorbed into your bloodstream over a period of about 12 hours.
Though the medicine is designed to be slow-release, some people who misuse Oxycontin consume it in ways that accelerate its absorption. Common ways that people misuse Oxycontin include crushing and snorting pills or dissolving the drug and injecting it with a needle. When they do this, the drug gets into their system very quickly and has a half-life of about 3.5 hours.
It takes different amounts of time to get Oxycontin out of different systems in your body:
Oxycontin use can be detected in blood samples as soon as 15 minutes after ingestion. Tests to detect Oxycontin in the blood system will be positive for up to two days after a single dose.
Urine tests are one of the least invasive methods for determining if a person has recently used oxycontin. On average, Oxycontin is detectable in urine for two to four days after use. However, the length of time an Oxycontin urine test will detect use may be slightly different for different people. Body mass, urine pH, frequency of use and other variables can affect how long Oxycontin stays in a person’s system.
Oxycontin and its metabolites get incorporated into the hair shaft. Because the drug is deposited into new hair growth, Oxycontin is first detected in hair five to 10 days after use. It cannot be removed from hair. Since diagnostic centers only test the region of hair near the scalp, Oxycontin use within the last 90 days can be detected by hair analysis.
Oxycontin use during pregnancy is not recommended because it can lead to serious and long-term health issues for exposed infants. Using Oxycontin while breastfeeding can be harmful. An infant exposed to oxycontin in breast milk can suffer from excessive sleepiness, central nervous system depression and possibly death. Oxycontin levels peak in breast milk one to two hours after a dose, and it may take days after the last dose for milk to be Oxycontin-free. Even when mothers take low doses of Oxycontin, breastfed infants might experience negative symptoms. This is because infants eliminate oxycontin so slowly that it builds up in their systems.
Normally, the maximum dose of Oxycontin that people are initially prescribed is 80 mg every 12 hours. This is typical unless a patient has become tolerant and needs a higher dose for effective pain management. Since it isn’t feasible to test in humans, the exact maximum dose one can take safely is not known yet. The minimum amount required for an overdose is not known either. The amount of Oxycontin it takes to overdose differs for each person and is affected by metabolism, body size and other medications they may be taking.
Even a single dose of slow-release Oxycontin can be fatal if it is taken incorrectly. People who misuse Oxycontin by snorting or injecting it are bypassing the slow-release mechanism. This releases the drug into their system all at once instead of over the course of 12 hours. The quick release can be enough to cause respiratory failure and stop a person’s breathing.
Symptoms of Oxycontin overdose include:
- Respiratory depression (slowed breathing rate)
- Somnolence (extreme sleepiness or drowsiness)
- Stupor or coma
- Muscle weakness
- Cold or clammy skin
- Small or constricted pupils
- Pulmonary edema (fluid buildup in the lungs)
Is Oxycontin Addictive?
Most people who take Oxycontin for pain relief do not become addicted. However, it is very possible to become addicted to Oxycontin because of its euphoric effects. In addition to relieving pain, Oxycontin also causes a release of dopamine in the brain that creates a general sense of happiness or well-being. This high often tempts people to continue taking Oxycontin even after they no longer need it for their pain.
Sometimes, people can develop a tolerance or physical dependence on Oxycontin. This is different from addiction because it is not a psychological need for the drug. Instead, their body becomes accustomed to the dose they are taking, and they end up needing to take increased amounts of it to relieve their pain.
In addition to the physical symptoms of Oxycontin use, there are other signs that a person is misusing Oxycontin. There are several ways to tell if someone you love is addicted to Oxycontin. Signs include:
- Filling multiple prescriptions for pain medications
- Forging prescriptions
- “Doctor shopping” to find a doctor who will prescribe opioids
- Stealing painkillers from other people or pharmacies
- Frequently needing money, or engaging in illegal activities to get money
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction to Oxycontin or other opioids, The Recovery Village Palm Beach at Baptist Health is here to help. Contact us today to learn about the personalized, confidential services we offer to people who are ready to begin the road to recovery.
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