Abuse of opioid medications is one of the most common types of substance use disorder in the country, and it is considered to be at epidemic levels by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Percocet is just one example of an opioid painkiller that has become a popular and risky subject of abuse. Because the opioid in Percocet – oxycodone – is combined with acetaminophen, this drug can have unexpected side effects, especially when abused, that can have serious health consequences beyond those caused by oxycodone alone.
While most people are aware of the high that opioids like Percocet can produce, as well as the dangerous effects of overdose on these drugs, not everyone is aware of the various short-term and long-term side effects of using Percocet, which in themselves can cause long-term or even permanent damage to the individual’s body and brain when the drug is abused chronically. For this reason, intervention and treatment for individuals struggling with Percocet abuse can potentially prevent more than overdose deaths; they can help the individual protect physical and mental health for the future.
Percocet: A Prescription Painkiller with an Extra Boost
Percocet is most often prescribed to help individuals who are struggling with pain, particularly after an accident or after surgery. A potent combination of the powerful opioid oxycodone and a milder analgesic (acetaminophen), this medication can provide wide-spectrum pain relief for those who are struggling with moderate to moderately severe chronic or acute pain, as described by the National Library of Medicine.
Of course, like other drugs made with oxycodone, Percocet can be highly addictive and is often abused for its potentially euphoric effects, which come with a number of potentially uncomfortable or even risky physical and mental side effects. However, the addition of acetaminophen to the addictive opioid can cause additional side effects that the individual might not otherwise expect from opioid abuse.
Percocet in the Body
The oxycodone in Percocet behaves mostly like any other opioid in the body. Opioids bind with natural receptors in the brain, creating an analgesic effect – that is, diminishing the body’s ability to feel pain. The body creates its own kind of opioid neurochemical; however, this isn’t usually strong enough to manage moderate to severe pain. In addition, the acetaminophen in Percocet amplifies the analgesic action, helping to strengthen the painkilling effect.
However, what the opioid in Percocet does that the acetaminophen doesn’t is increase the amount of dopamine available in the bloodstream, as described by the National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment. Dopamine is a natural neurochemical that regulates the body’s ability to feel pleasure. Because of this, the individual using an opioid painkiller often feels a flood of pleasure and wellbeing alongside the painkilling effect, a state referred to as euphoria. It is this effect that often leads people to abuse Percocet and other opioids for recreation.
Others abuse Percocet due to a condition called tolerance, in which the body becomes used to the concentration of opioid available, resulting in a diminished effect. The result might be for the individual to begin taking more of the drug to maintain the level of analgesia desired, leading into a spiral of increasing dosage and tolerance, and resulting in dependence. This, in turn, can lead to addiction.
Short-Term Side Effects
When a person abuses Percocet, there are side effects that can occur in the short-term that range from discomfort to potentially life-threatening circumstances. As described by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, these include:
- Slowed breathing
- Mood changes or depression
- Mental confusion
A person does not need to have been abusing Percocet for very long to experience toxicity and overdose. The way that oxycodone suppresses breathing can easily result in breathing stopping entirely, and this can prove fatal. Each person responds to opioids differently, so increasing the dosage of these powerful drugs without medical guidance can lead to an overdose unexpectedly, depending on the individual.
Long-Term Side Effects
In the long-term, opioids like the oxycodone found in Percocet can have profound effects on a range of body systems, especially the cardiovascular and respiratory organ systems. A study from Pharmacology & Therapeutics gives an overview on how opioids affect the cardiovascular system in particular, demonstrating in part how drugs like Percocet cause damage to the heart that can result in:
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Chronic heart arrhythmia
- Heart failure
- Other types of heart damage and heart disease
In addition to the cardiac effects, long-term effects of opioid abuse can include:
- Loss of cognitive function
- Memory loss
- Depressed lung function
- Depression and anxiety
- Dependence, tolerance, and addiction
A British Journal of Anaesthesia study also demonstrates the potential for reduced lung function caused by opioid abuse to cause a related drop in oxygen saturation levels in the body. This diminished lung function can potentially result in lower amounts of oxygen in the bloodstream, depriving the brain and other organs of necessary oxygen – a condition referred to as hypoxia – which can result in organ and brain damage.
Don’t Forget the Acetaminophen
The acetaminophen in Percocet should not be ignored when it comes to long-term effects. As described by MedicineNet, acetaminophen has been shown to cause liver damage through creating a toxic metabolite that accumulates in the liver, causing scarring and potentially resulting in liver failure.
Because of these effects, it is important to be aware that when Percocet is being abused, the health effects of both the oxycodone and the acetaminophen are potential risks; in other words, abusing Percocet means abusing acetaminophen too.
Minimizing the Damage
If damage results from long-term abuse of Percocet, including heart or liver damage, or brain damage due to hypoxia, it can be irreversible. Short-term symptoms, however, can be reversed when the drug is stopped. In either case, damage is minimized when the individual stops abusing Percocet as early as possible after abuse or addiction is recognized. Of course, damage can be prevented by not abusing the drug to begin with; however, in the case of abuse, medical intervention for detox and treatment can identify damage that has occurred and provide support in minimizing it or treating it along with the substance abuse.
Through medically supported detox and treatment, the individual can minimize withdrawal symptoms and get nutritional and exercise support that help the body heal as much as possible. In addition, getting treatment can help the individual learn to manage symptoms of addiction, such as triggers that lead to cravings, reducing the chance that the individual will relapse to continued Percocet abuse.
Not all treatments for Percocet abuse are effective. The methods that are most likely to result in continued abstinence from Percocet include research-based treatments and therapies like:
These and other elements of professional, certified treatment programs can put the individual who is struggling with Percocet abuse on the path toward long-term recovery.