A codeine-derived prescription drug, oxycodone is the active ingredient in the popular painkiller Percocet and its time-released version, OxyContin. Referred to on the streets as “ox,” “oxy,” “OC” or simply “blue,” oxycodone has become one of the most widely abused prescription drugs on the market, causing the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to issue warnings on the drug’s habit-forming nature, with nearly two million Americans abusing the opiate.
Acting on the brain’s chemical messengers (known as “neurotransmitters”) and opiate receptors, oxycodone initiates feelings of painlessness, euphoria and calm when ingested. With increased and prolonged use, oxycodone can quickly lead to physical tolerance, necessitating larger and more frequent dosages to produce the sought-after high.
As oxycodone addiction begins to set in, users often exhibit drug-seeking behaviors associated with addiction, such as illegal purchases, theft or “doctor-shopping” — the practice of visiting multiple physicians with feigned or real maladies in order to obtain the desired amount of the opiate.
How Oxycodone Addiction Forms
Oxycodone acts on some of the brain’s most important neurotransmitters, known as dopamine. Responsible for feelings of calm and happiness, oxycodone inhibits dopamine reuptake in the brain, causing users to experience euphoric effects when the drug enters the system.
Additionally, oxycodone acts on the spinal cord’s pain receptors, working to block sensations of pain throughout the body. Opiates also take effect on the brainstem, slowing automatic responses such as breathing, and the limbic system, causing pleasurable emotional responses to oxycodone.
Over time, the brain begins to adjust to these over-presence of dopamine (as well as other neurotransmitters, such as GABA), causing the user to experience negative psychological symptoms upon sudden cessation.
Psychological Symptoms of Oxycodone Addiction and Withdrawal
In the long run, oxycodone addiction can also negatively affect pain management, causing users to become more pain-sensitive with time — with fewer effective recourses for analgesia as drug tolerance rises.
Additionally, depression, mood swings and coordination difficulties may be encountered as oxycodone withdrawal sets in. Long-term oxycodone use can also lead to cognitive difficulties, such as problems with memory formation and recall and reduction in focus and attention span.
Physical Oxycodone Withdrawal and Overdose Dangers
Physical symptoms of oxycodone addiction and withdrawal may include severe headaches, eye irritation, difficult or slowed breathing, vomiting, profuse sweating, digestive difficulties and even seizures.
Addicted individuals may also experience the hallmark opiate withdrawal symptoms, such as muscle and bone pain, involuntary muscle movements and cold flashes. Oxycodone overdoses — particularly those involving a secondary use of alcohol — can be fatal if not immediately treated, largely due to severe respiratory depression as a result of excessive dosing.