How Hydrocodone Is Used for Pain Management

Hydrocodone is an opioid painkiller frequently 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 or other medication that contains hydrocodone requires a doctor's prescription.

Hydrocodone combined with acetaminophen is available under multiple brand names, including:

  • Vicodin
  • Lortab
  • Lorcet
  • Norco
  • Anesxia
  • Co-Gesic
  • Ceta-Plus
  • Hydrocet
  • Zydone

When combined with ibuprofen, it is known as Vicoprofen.

When you're taking a combination product, it's important to understand the pros and cons, side effects, and dosages of each product.

How Hydrocodone Works

Hydrocodone treats pain by changing the way your central nervous system responds to pain signals. It helps with a cough by decreasing activity in the part of the brain that causes coughing.

The drug is available in both short-acting and long-acting, or extended-release, forms of pain control. Hydrocodone products come in tablets, capsules, and syrups. It's 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
  • Fuzzy thinking
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Dry mouth and throat
  • Itching and/or rash

Side effects that require immediate medical attention include:

  • Slowed or irregular breathing
  • Chest tightness
  • Hallucinations
  • Agitation, fever, sweating, confusion, rapid heartbeat, loss of coordination
  • Nausea and vomiting with loss of appetite, weakness, or dizziness
  • Inability to maintain an erection
  • Irregular menstruation
  • Lowered sexual desire

Seek immediate medical attention if you experience tightness in the chest or slowed or irregular breathing.

Dangerous Drug and Alcohol Interactions With Hydrocodone

If you take hydrocodone with certain other medications, you are at risk of:

  • Breathing problems
  • Sedation and
  • Coma

It is critical that you discuss all of your medications with your doctor, including those you are taking, plan to take, or plan to stop taking.

Drugs that have these dangerous interactions include:

  • Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Librium, Klonopin, Diastat, Valium, Ativan, Restoril, Halcion)
  • Medications for mental illness
  • Nausea drugs
  • Other pain medications
  • Sedatives, sleeping pills, or tranquilizers

Drinking alcohol and taking any street drugs can also put you at risk of dangerous interactions.

Abuse and Addiction

Hydrocodone is abused for its narcotic effects. Of special concern is hydrocodone abuse among teenagers, which is double the rate in adults, and a rise in deaths from 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 your body has become accustomed to the medication. The body needs the medication to function and may develop a tolerance. With addiction, however, the medication is interfering with your life in some way. Use of the drug is compulsive, regardless of real or potential harm.

Addiction Risk Factors

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
  • Genetic predisposition

Hydrocodone Overdose and 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 or addiction to hydrocodone increases the risk of a hydrocodone overdose. To prevent an overdose, never take more medication than prescribed and never crush or chew hydrocodone, which can release too much medication into the bloodstream at once.​

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Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Opioids and Adolescents. Updated May 13, 2019.

  2. National Institutes of Health: National Institute on Drug Abuse. Principles of drug addiction treatment: A research-based guide (third edition). Is there a difference between physical dependence and addiction? Updated January 2018.

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