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Hydrocodone and Alcohol: A Dangerous Combination

By Linda Whiteside

Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Table of Contents

What is Hydrocodone?

Hydrocodone is an opioid drug that is the main ingredient in several painkillers, including Vicodin and Norco. It is a synthetic opioid that is generally prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain, especially when other painkillers have proven themselves ineffective. While this medication can be effective when used as prescribed for short periods, it is also one of the most widely abused prescription opioids. It can be especially addictive when abused alongside other drugs, especially other central nervous system depressants, such as alcohol.

Is Hydrocodone Addictive?

Hydrocodone, like all opioids, is highly addictive. It does not take long for a user to develop a strong chemical dependency on the medication. This can occur whether they are taking the drug as prescribed or abusing it illicitly after obtaining it on the street. When a person takes an opioid like Vicodin or Norco, their brains release high quantities of dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for the euphoric feelings that opioid abusers seek, but it is also the brain’s “reward chemical.” As a result, the brain learns to crave opioids all the time. Paired with the excruciating and debilitating withdrawal symptoms that occur when a person stops taking opioids, the drug can feel almost impossible to quit.

Can You Drink While Taking Hydrocodone?

Alcohol can be dangerous while taking many medications. Even over-the-counter medications like Tylenol and ibuprofen can have deleterious side effects when mixed with liquor. Narcotic painkillers, however, are even more susceptible to negative effects when mixed with alcoholic beverages. Mixing hydrocodone and alcohol can be a deadly combination, which is why physicians recommend not drinking at all while under the influence of this medication.

What Happens When You Mix Hydrocodone and Alcohol?

When doctors prescribe opioids, they generally advise against drinking. In fact, prescription bottles often have a disclaimer that says that hydrocodone and alcohol should not be ingested during the same time period. Drinking while taking opioid painkillers can be extremely dangerous.

Hydrocodone and alcohol heighten the effects of one another. Because they also operate on the body in similar ways, they can lead to some dangerous side effects. These effects include drowsiness, slowed or difficulty breathing, impaired motor control, increased risk for overdose, kidney and liver problems, and more. Moreover, the behavioral changes that alcohol induces normally can lead to even more dangerous risk-taking behavior when a person is also taking painkillers. Drinking while taking Vicodin, Norco, or other prescription opiates is not only not recommended – it can also be fatal.

The Risks of Abusing Hydrocodone and Alcohol

The United States and much of the world is currently facing an opioid epidemic. Opioid abuse is one of the leading causes of premature death today. However, it is important to recognize that a large percentage of these deaths are in fact due to the mixing of different substances. Individuals who drink alcohol are far more susceptible to opioid overdoses. In fact, even a small amount of alcohol increases the likelihood of an opioid overdose.

Unfortunately, both alcohol and hydrocodone are highly addictive. Individuals may be aware of the risks of combining the two drugs, but the consequences of physical and psychological dependence can make it seemingly impossible to stop taking them. These substances are not only addictive on their own, but they are actually more addictive when taken together, since they enhance each other’s effects. The greatest risks of combining hydrocodone and alcohol, ultimately, are addiction and fatal overdose.

While a fatal overdose can occur early on, even the first time the substances are mixed, it is important to recognize that the consequences of addiction can ruin a person’s life long before an overdose takes it away. Opioid and alcohol addiction can cause financial ruin, destroy families and relationships, cause unemployment and homelessness, and wreck mental health. Behavioral changes and desperate drug-seeking behavior can even lead to criminal activity and serious legal consequences. Over time, as life becomes less and less bearable, users may be driven further into the escapism and false euphoria of substance abuse.

Why Alcohol Potentiates Hydrocodone

Both hydrocodone and alcohol slow down the transmissions from the nervous system to the brain and vice versa. When taken together, this effect is significantly magnified.

Alcohol exerts its primary effects on a person’s central nervous system (CNS). While many people subjectively feel stimulated and energized by alcohol, the reduced inhibitions are actually the result of alcohol’s depressant effects. Alcohol shuts down vital body and brain functions, which is why people feel so loose, relaxed, and uninhibited when they are drunk. As a CNS depressant, alcohol can be extremely dangerous at high doses, because the central nervous system is responsible for the automatic functions that keep the body alive, such as breathing.

Opioid medications like hydrocodone are central nervous system depressants as well. Alcohol potentiates hydrocodone because it heightens the CNS-depressant effects of the medication. As a result, not only will Vicodin work to blunt a person’s pain receptors, but it may subdue other vital functions as well. Taking these two substances together can cause the brain the shut down vital organs, slow or stop breathing, and even prevent oxygen from getting to the brain, resulting in coma or death.

Side Effects of Mixing Alcohol and Hydrocodone

Combining alcohol with opiates like hydrocodone can lead to a number of adverse effects. While some of these effects are present to some degree when one abuses just one of these substances, the effects are heightened when a person combines the two. The following are some of the more common and dangerous consequences of abusing Vicodin and alcohol:

  • Dehydration
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular instability
  • Irregular heart rhythm and rate
  • Notable disinhibition
  • Loss of coordination
  • Abnormal behavior
  • Dizziness
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Coma

By far the most dangerous side effect of mixing hydrocodone and alcohol, however, is overdose. During an overdose, respiratory depression is the most dangerous consequence. When a person stops breathing, even for a short period, their organs and their brain are deprived of oxygen. This can lead to permanent damage, even if they survive the overdose. In the worst case, it can lead to death.

Recovering from Hydrocodone Addiction at Nuview Treatment Center

NuView Treatment Center, an outpatient rehab facility located in West Los Angeles, specializes in evidence-based approaches to addiction recovery. We treat a wide range of distinct addictions, ranging from all manner of substance use disorders to impulse control problems like gambling addiction and sex addiction. We understand that polysubstance addictions, such as hydrocodone and alcohol addiction, are especially dangerous and require compassionate and individualized care. Our staff members develop unique treatment plans for each client after an initial evaluation, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to develop new coping skills and address underlying issues.

At NuView, it is our goal to help individuals not only quit narcotics and alcohol, but also begin new lives in sobriety that are both meaningful and fulfilling.

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Author

Written By: Linda Whiteside
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Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson
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Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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