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OxyContin Addiction & Misuse: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Aug 11, 2023 • 7 cited sources

OxyContin misuse can quickly lead to addiction. The habit-forming prescription painkiller is frequently misused for its euphoric effects, and dependence can easily form. Treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD) related to this misuse includes Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT).

OxyContin is a prescription painkiller containing an opioid (oxycodone) wrapped in a time-release coating. Manufacturers claimed the drug came with a small misuse risk, as the drug’s slow onset and long-lasting power meant people didn’t experience euphoric highs and crushing lows. 

Unfortunately, OxyContin doesn’t live up to the marketing hype. Many people who take the drug for pain become hooked on the emotional changes and euphoria it delivers. And when they do, they may take far too much for far too long and struggle to quit. 

What Is OxyContin?

OxyContin is an opioid medication designed to ease pain. For decades, doctors used drugs like this to help their patients and didn’t always explain the risks clearly.

In 2012 alone, doctors dispensed more than 255 million prescriptions for opioid drugs. That’s a rate of 81.3 prescriptions per 100 people.[1] Doctors, dentists and surgeons often prescribed OxyContin for a wide range of ailments. 

OxyContin is designed to address moderate-to-severe pain in people who need help around the clock.[2] It’s not meant for as-you-need-it help with pain, but many people have used the drug in this manner. They got the prescription after an injury, surgery or procedure, and they stored the unused pills to use later if needed. Some gave their pills away or sold them. 

Street dealers call OxyContin the following names:

  • Blue 
  • Hillbilly heroin 
  • Kicker
  • Oxycotton

But most dealers just called the pills pure profit. People knew they could swallow, snort or inject the drugs for a quick high. And many people considered the drug safer than heroin or other street drugs. Soon, an opioid epidemic was born.

Common OxyContin Side Effects

OxyContin is a powerful drug that works on almost every major system within your body. Even when taken properly, OxyContin can cause significant problems. 

Known side effects include the following:[2]

  • Respiratory depression: OxyContin works directly on the central nervous system, slowing down how often you breathe and how alert you feel. 
  • Constipation: Opioids slow intestinal movement, allowing food to collect in your digestive tract and grow hard. 
  • Sedation: The higher your OxyContin dose, the less likely it is that you’ll focus and concentrate. 

Like all opioids, oxycodone latches to receptors within the brain, triggering the release of powerful neurotransmitters. Portions of your brain controlling pleasure and reward are pushed into high gear, triggering a sense of euphoria and ensuring your brain remembers that sensation. 

Over time, you could become attached to that sense of well-being. An addiction can quickly follow, and this makes it incredibly difficult to stop using OxyContin without professional addiction treatment.

How Addictive Is OxyContin?

All opioids come with a high addiction risk. Painkillers are so powerful, and their emotional impact is so strong, that many people develop troublesome relationships with their drugs. 

Researchers say 13% of people taking prescription painkillers also misuse them.[3] A second group of people misuse OxyContin without a formal prescription for the drug. They buy it from dealers, steal it from pharmacies or get it from friends. 

While all opioids can cause addiction, OxyContin is particularly dangerous. The drug’s original time-release coating dissolved when the pills were crushed, allowing the full impact of a dose to hit the central nervous system when users crushed, snorted or injected their pills. 

Later OxyContin formulations were harder to misuse, as the coating resisted crushing. But users quickly discovered they could melt away the coating before misusing it. The familiar high was still possible even if it took a little more work to get. 

OxyContin’s manufacturer admitted to knowledge of the drug’s misuse potential in 2020.[4] Field reports indicated the drug was dangerous, and many people manipulated their doses to get high. But the drug remained on pharmacy shelves, and some doctors weren’t aware that their prescriptions led to a lifetime of drug misuse for their patients. 

While every person who misuses OxyContin is different, signs of misuse are often similar. 

Physical Signs of Misuse

OxyContin is a sedating drug, and people who misuse it often take large doses all at once. They may seem alert one moment, but then, they are asleep or nodding off the next moment. 

Other physical symptoms include the following:

  • Severe constipation
  • Weight loss
  • Track marks (if the person is injecting drugs) or a runny nose (if the person is snorting drugs)

The person may complain of relentless pain in an attempt to get more drugs. 

Behavioral Signs of Misuse

Getting, taking, and recovering from drugs is time-consuming. People with a significant addiction rarely have enough time to go to work every day and perform at peak efficiency. They may face reprimands from employers or teachers as their performance slips. 

People with an OxyContin habit may also display the following symptoms:

  • Enhanced need for privacy
  • New friends or dealers 
  • Lack of money 

They may become creative about getting more drugs, visiting open houses to steal pills or asking friends to loan them doses. 

Emotional Signs of Misuse

Addiction is a disease, and people don’t develop the problem because they want to harm others. Many people with addiction feel terrible about their behavior, and they want to change their lives but don’t know how.

Mood swings are common in OxyContin misusers. They may seem depressed or sedated while on drugs and anxious without them.

Understand OxyContin Overdose Risks

OxyContin delivers a powerful high when first misused, but brain cells adjust over time. People must take higher doses to get intoxicated, and they can easily take too much and overdose. In 2018, about 40 Americans died every day due to an opioid overdose.[5]

It’s very difficult to determine how much OxyContin a person must take to experience an overdose. People with a long history of OxyContin misuse can take remarkably high doses that would be far too much for an inexperienced person. 

But most people with an OxyContin misuse history will either experience an overdose or come very close to it. A dose they need to get high will be enough to suppress their breathing and lead to a coma-like state. 

People who are experiencing an OxyContin overdose will have the following symptoms:

  • Pale, clammy skin 
  • Slow or absent breathing
  • Slow or absent heartbeat
  • Unresponsiveness

Naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan, can reverse an overdose in seconds. Giving a dose to a person who has overdosed on opioids can help to save a life, and in many states, the drug is available over the counter. 

If you aren’t sure if the person has overdosed, administer naloxone anyway. There is no con to doing so, and you could be saving the person’s life. 

Can You Quit OxyContin Quickly?

Life with an ongoing OxyContin misuse problem isn’t easy, and many people want to quit using the drug due to their physical or mental health. But quitting without professional help is very difficult. 

Opioid withdrawal can cause the following symptoms:[6]

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Fast heart rate

Drug cravings are common during OxyContin withdrawal too. Some people return to drugs before withdrawal is complete, as they can’t resist the temptation. 

Medications can help to ease withdrawal symptoms, and it’s always best for people to work with their doctors on a withdrawal plan. But medical detox programs don’t address all of the signs and symptoms of opioid use disorder (OUD). Follow-up care is required for everyone if true recovery is to take place.

What Is MAT?

Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) programs are meant to help people quit using drugs like OxyContin. As experts explain, these programs have been proven effective and can reduce overdoses, drug use and crime rates.[7] 

OxyContin changes brain chemistry, prompting the release of large amounts of neurotransmitters. Eventually, brain cells become accustomed to these big doses and don’t function well without them. People who try to quit opioids may struggle due to these brain chemistry changes. MAT can help.

MAT programs use prescriptions like Suboxone, which contains buprenorphine. This medication can address brain imbalances caused by OxyContin, reducing sickness caused by withdrawal as well as cravings for drugs. With MAT, you could handle your triggers without relapsing back to OxyContin misuse.

Some MAT programs also include therapy, helping you to change your habits and thought patterns to preserve sobriety. The work you do in therapy can help you to build a better life overall. But medications alone are also effective for people with OUD. 

Bicycle Health uses telemedicine techniques to bring the power of MAT to people no matter where they live. Appointments are conducted via video chat or phone calls, and you can pick up your prescription at a nearby pharmacy. Contact us to learn more about how our treatment works.

Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD

Peter Manza, PhD received his BA in Psychology and Biology from the University of Rochester and his PhD in Integrative Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. He is currently working as a research scientist in Washington, DC. His research focuses on the role ... Read More

  1. U.S. Opioid Dispensing Rate Maps. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. November 2021. Accessed April 2023.
  2. OxyContin Package Insert. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. September 2007. Accessed April 2023.
  3. Opioid Prescribing in Illinois: Examining Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Data. Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. May 2018. Accessed April 2023.
  4. Opioid Manufacturer Purdue Pharma Pleads Guilty to Fraud and Kickback Conspiracies. November 2020. Accessed April 2023.
  5. Doctors and Dentists Still Flooding U.S. With Opioid Prescriptions. National Public Radio. July 2020. Accessed April 2023.
  6. Medically Supervised Opioid Withdrawal During Treatment for Addiction. UpToDate. April 2022. Accessed April 2023.
  7. The Overdose Crisis Demands Wider Access not Just to Narcan but Also Methadone. Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics. April 2023. Accessed April 2023.

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