Every 19 minutes, someone dies from overdosing on a prescription drug. People are becoming addicted to these drugs and require treatment to get clean and to stay clean. Even infants are being born addicted to prescription medicines at an alarming rate. Because of this growing problem with prescription drug abuse, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is pushing for tighter restrictions, namely on the painkiller hydrocodone.
Hydrocodone, Opioids and Addiction
Hydrocodone has become the focus of recent attempts by the FDA to get tighter restrictions placed on prescription painkillers because it is the most widely prescribed drug of its type. Hydrocodone is very effective in relieving severe and chronic pain, but it is also highly addictive. Like other prescription painkillers that are commonly abused, hydrocodone is an opioid. This means it is derived from the compounds found in the opium poppy and is related to morphine and heroin.
Opioid drugs are effective at relieving pain. They can suppress coughs, and even relieve stomach upset. They also feel good when taken. The opioids act on certain receptors in the brain and cause a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. This is the brain chemical that makes you feel good in pleasurable situations. The flood of dopamine produced by opioids is greater than what you normally experience, and it can leave you craving more. Over time, someone who has been abusing one of these drugs will become tolerant to it, may take more to get a high, and eventually will experience withdrawal and dependence. It is possible to take opioid prescriptions responsibly, but addiction is always a risk.
Prescription Painkiller Abuse Epidemic
Perhaps because they have been overprescribed, but really for reasons not fully understood, more people than ever are hooked on opioids like hydrocodone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. has tripled since 1990. Most of the increase can be attributed to prescription medicines.
In parallel with the rise in overdoses is the sale of these drugs. Since 1999 there has been a 300 percent increase in sales. There has also been a huge increase in emergency room visits due to prescription painkiller abuse. Only a small amount of the abuse of painkillers comes from valid prescriptions. Most people abusing these drugs got them from a friend, bought or stole them from someone they know or bought them from a drug dealer.
Restricting Prescription Painkillers
The statistics show a troubling trend in the abuse of these opioid painkillers and one that the government is keen to reverse. Hydrocodone preparations mixed with non-narcotic painkillers are currently listed as Schedule III controlled substances by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The new recommendation from the FDA is to move it to Schedule II. Certain other opioid painkillers are already classified as Schedule II substances, like hydromorphone and oxycodone. Other Schedule II drugs include methadone, morphine, codeine, opium, amphetamine and methamphetamine.
The FDA hopes that moving hydrocodone combination drugs into Schedule II would reduce the incidence of abuse. Being more tightly restricted would mean that a written prescription would be required of patients to get access to the drug. Currently, a doctor may call a pharmacy to place a prescription for a patient or to extend a refill of hydrocodone. Placement in Schedule II would also eliminate refills. To get more, a patient would have to physically check in with his or her doctor. There would also be a restriction on the manufacture of the hydrocodone combinations and a quota would be set.
The FDA has made its recommendation in the hope of reducing prescription abuse and avoiding overdose deaths. Not everyone, however, agrees with the possible changes. Drug manufacturers are lobbying against the change, as are advocates for patients, who believe those who really need the drug will suffer. The final decision as to how to classify hydrocodone medications ultimately belongs to the DEA. What that administration will decide to do is not yet known.