Vicodin is the brand name of a drug that is a combination of hydrocodone and acetaminophen. Hydrocodone is the active ingredient found in many types of pain pills and is a semi-synthetic opioid synthesized from codeine, an opioid alkaloid found in the opium poppy. Hydrocodone is an opioid pain medication and is considered a narcotic. Vicodin is used to treat moderate to severe pain and a doctor’s prescription is required to obtain it. Patients are generally prescribed Vicodin to combat chronic pain or pain from surgery or injury. Vicodin’s street names include Vics or Norcos. Vicodin can be swallowed, snorted or injected and its risk for physical and psychological dependence is high. The Drug Enforcement Administration lists Vicodin as a Schedule II drug, meaning that it has a high potential for misuse and is considered dangerous. Previously, it was a Schedule III drug, a class with fewer regulations. Recently, Vicodin has increased in popularity and many people have become addicted to it, contributing to the current opioid epidemic. Deaths from prescription opioids like oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone have more than quadrupled since 1999. Currently, 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.

History of Vicodin

The main ingredients in Vicodin date back to the late 19th century. Acetaminophen was first created from a coal-tar distillation byproduct. Hydrocodone was synthesized by a German pharmaceutical company named Knoll in 1920. Later, in 1978, Knoll combined the two ingredients to create Vicodin and five years later, a generic version was made available.

Directly following Vicodin’s creation, the use of hydrocodone skyrocketed. From 2005 to 2010, emergency room visits involving recreational use of hydrocodone more than doubled in the United States, increasing from 47,194 in 2005 to 82,480 in 2011. Today, the rise of Vicodin continues to climb. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, more than 136 million hydrocodone pills were dispensed in 2013, making it the most prescribed opioid in the United States.

How Vicodin Affects the Body

Vicodin’s main ingredient, hydrocodone, is a narcotic analgesic. That means it connects to the parts of cells in the brain and spinal cord called opioid receptors. Opioids interfere with pain signals that are on the way to the brain to change the perception of pain, as well a person’s emotional reaction to it. The euphoric feeling can easily become addictive, leading many people to use more Vicodin for a longer period than prescribed. Over time, the body may need more of the drug to reach the same effects.

Side effects associated with Vicodin use include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness

Drug interactions are possible when taking Vicodin with alcohol, other pain medications, cough and cold relief medications, opioid antagonists, drugs for sleeping issues or anxiety and muscle relaxants. These interactions can affect how the medications work and put individuals at an increased risk for serious side effects.  These more serious side effects include slow/shallow breathing, severe dizziness/drowsiness and liver damage or failure.

Vicodin Overdose

A Vicodin overdose can occur when someone intentionally or unintentionally takes too much of the drug or combines Vicodin with other drugs. There are several reasons why someone might deliberately or accidentally take too much Vicodin. For example, they may be trying to hurt themselves or they may be addicted to Vicodin.

Vicodin addiction is a serious matter. Vicodin can cause dangerous and detrimental effects. Even without an overdose, the high amounts of acetaminophen in Vicodin combined with hydrocodone can be extremely hard on the liver when taken in large quantities. Over time, it can cause inflammation, scarring and permanent liver damage. Additionally, the slowing of the digestive and respiratory systems can also cause chronic constipation and intestinal damage, leaving the individual more susceptible to respiratory infections and lung problems.

Vicodin overdose symptoms include:

  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Low blood pressure
  • Weak pulse
  • Drowsiness
  • Coma
  • Shallow breathing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • No breathing
  • Blush-colored fingernails and lips

How Long Does Vicodin Stay in Your System?

The half-life of Vicodin, or the period required for the concentration of the drug in the body to be reduced by one-half, is approximately four hours. A drug test will usually detect Vicodin’s ingredient hydrocodone. The various options for Vicodin drug testing include:

  • Urine testing: The most common way to detect Vicodin, urine testing is a painless and simple way to test for Vicodin. Hydrocodone is detectable up to four days after Vicodin consumption. The window for detection is longer for chronic, heavy use.
  • Blood testing: This method is not recommended to detect Vicodin use.
  • Saliva testing: Saliva is the most convenient way to test for Vicodin use. Saliva testing must be conducted in the days directly after use, preferably between 12 and 36 hours after last use. Before 12 hours, Vicodin will not be detectable, and after 36 hours, traces of Vicodin will be gone.
  • Hair testing: Testing a hair sample is the most reliable way to test the body for drugs because traces of substances stay in the hair follicles for up to 90 days after use. However, in the case of detecting the ingredient hydrocodone, it can take ten days for a hair sample to show the drug. For immediate testing results, salvia and urine are the most effective options.

Factors that Affect How Long Vicodin Stays in Your System

  • Testing date: The longer you wait to be tested, the lower the chances are Vicodin will show up.
  • Dosage: People who use Vicodin sparingly will have a small amount of hydrocodone in their system, while people who use it regularly will have a larger amount for a longer period.
  • Hydration: Drinking water can dilute urine, making the concentration of drug molecules lower and harder to detect.
  • Metabolism: The rate of metabolism varies greatly from person to person. The faster your metabolism, the faster the drug residue will leave your organs. Metabolism is dependent on age, sex and other genetic predispositions and environmental factors.
  • Overall health: If you have liver issues or damage, you may have trouble metabolizing Vicodin, which means the drug will stay in your system much longer. You may test positive for weeks after Vicodin intake.
  • Exercise: Physical activity boosts your metabolism and cardiovascular system, affecting how long drugs stay in your system.
  • Use of other medications or drugs: The past or present use of other substances can affect how long Vicodin stays in your system.
  • Body mass/body fat content: Long-term, heavy use of Vicodin can cause the opioid to be stored in fatty tissue, keeping traces of the drug in the body for even longer periods. The more body fat an individual has, the more hydrocodone will be absorbed, especially if the liver is already damaged and the body’s metabolism is compromised.

How to Get Vicodin Out of Your System

The safest and most practical way to get Vicodin out of your system is to stop taking it. This process can be difficult, especially if you are physically or psychologically addicted to Vicodin. Detox is a safe way to be monitored by medical professionals while toxins like Vicodin are eliminated from your system. Following detox, addiction treatment is recommended to ensure proper healing from addiction and prepare you to live a life free from all harmful substances.

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Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD
Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.