How does hydrocodone work?

Scientists still don’t know exactly how hydrocodone works. In general, hydrocodone works as an opiate agonist by changing the way the brain and body perceive pain. More here on hydrocodone’s action on the central nervous system.

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Hydrocodone affects the body and brain by interacting as an opiate agonist at specific receptor binding sites in the central nervous and other tissues. Does hydrocodone have the same effects for everyone? And how can you make hydrocodone work better. We explore here and invite your questions about hydrocodone at the end.

How does Hydrocodone work in the body?

Hydrocodone is an opioid medication used to help treat mild to moderate pain but which can also suppress the cough reflex. Specifically, For example, hydrocodone causes pain relief causes suppression of the cough reflex by a direct effect on the cough center in the medulla of the brain. Hydrocodone also appears to exert a drying effect on respiratory tract mucosa and to increase visocity of bronchial secretions.

Some possible effects of hydrocodone on the body include:

  • bradycardia
  • cough supression
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • hyperglycemia
  • loss of consciousness
  • shallow breathing
  • impaired coordination
  • slowed heart rate
  • nausea/vomiting
  • urinary urgency

Can you overdose on hydrocodone? Yes. However, the more serious and life-threatening side effects of taking hydrocodone are more likely to occur when hydrocodone is not taken as directed. Most people taking hydrocodone as directed experience only mild side effects.

How does Hydrocodone affect the brain and nervous system?

Hydrocodone is a central nervous system depressant, which means that it slows brain activity when taken. More specifically, hydrocodone is an opium-derived synthetic substance which affects the body by altering brain activity. And as an opiate agonist, hydrocodone exerts its principal pharmacologic effect on the central nervous and on the intestines. But what actually happens in the brain when you take hydrocodone?

Hydrocodone interacts as an agonists at specific neurotransmitter receptor binding sites, specifically with subtypes of opiate receptors such as:

1. The delta-receptor, which is localized in the limbic regions of the CNS

2. The mu-receptor, which is localized in pain modulating regions of the CNS

3. The the kappa-receptor, which is localized in the deep layers of the cerebral cortex

4. The sigma-receptor, which is thought to mediate the dysphoric and psychotomimetic effects of some opiate partial agonists

Hydrocodone binds to these opiate receptors in the brain, numbing feelings of pain and can also cause a euphoric “high.” But people who get high on hydrocodone have more chances of becoming addicted to hydrocodone than those who use hydrocodone as prescribed.

How fast does Hydrocodone work

Hydrocodone hits its peak blood plasma levels after about 1.3 hours. Some people crush and snort the powder from hydrocodone tablets to try to get more immediate effects, but this is dangerous and puts them at greater risk for adverse effects or potential overdose.

How long does Hydrocodone work?

Hydrocodone is taken as needed, generally every 4-6 hours. However, hydrocodone will wear off more quickly in some people than in others. Similarly, hydrocodone detection time in urine is relatively short (not more than a couple of days at most).

What makes Hydrocodone work better

Although you take hydrocodone as needed, there are a few warnings for taking hydrocodone. Hydrocodone needs to be taken exactly as directed. That means it can’t be crushed, chewed, or snorted – when it’s taken in any of these ways, more of the drug than is safe may be released into the bloodstream, leading to a potential overdose. Additionally, hydrocodone should not be taken along with other central nervous system depressants. Alcohol or benzodiazepines can cause excessive drowsiness and make it easier to overdose.

Does Hydrocodone work for everyone?

No, Hydrocodone is not right for everyone. Hydrocodone is an addictive durg, and it’s not recommended for those with a history of drug or alcohol abuse. Some people may experience serious side effects to Hydrocodone. There may be other medications you’re taking which prevent you from using Hydrocodone, so always check with your pharmacist when starting a new medication. Anyone who experiences problems while taking Hydrocodone should talk to their doctor immediately.

How hydrocodone works questions

Do you still have questions about how hydrocodone works? Please leave your questions, comments or experiences with hydrocodone here. We’ll be happy to answer your questions ASAP with a personal and prompt reply.

Reference Sources: DEA: Hydrocodone
Medline Plus: Hydrocodone
Toxnet: Hydrocodone
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.


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  1. I have had a recurring anxiety disorder for 35 years that has occurred 7 times in my life, lasting from 3 months to three years, with long intervals of normalcy, sometimes 10 years between episodes. I have a long list of practitioners helping me from counselors, psychiatrists, and gp’s. By taking one Vicodin a day, something in the drug calms me down and I feel totally normal, but not high or manic. My dr wanted me to research to find out why Vicodin helps me with the anxiety. Any suggestions?

  2. Please help . im going thur norco withdraws ive been having anxiety and panic attacks.will these symptoms go away after i get thur these this mess

    1. Hi Glenda. It takes time for withdrawal symptoms to resolve. And, you need support and encouragement to stay drug-free. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you have any problems, call the helpline you see on the website.

  3. Hi,

    Like many others, I was first prescribed hydrocodone for pain from a surgery. And then for chronic neck pain before another surgery. I have been taking it on and off for more than 10 years now, but never more than 2 a day with the dosage at 7.5/325. Additionally I have been treated for chronic depression for over 15 years. I have tried virtually every unit-depressant on the market. And currently I am on 3 different kinds, along with anti-anxiety meds. Nothing helps. EXCEPT hydrocodone.

    As I have read from many others, the euphoria helps me to function in everyday life, whereas if not, I lay in bed all day long. I actually need to take it now to be able to wash clothes, change my bed, clean up the kitchen, or face people in the outside world. Without hydrocodone, I might as well be dead. I have been off of it for many periods of time. I have tried exercise, comedy shows, comfort food, better diet, vacations, anything and everything, but nothing makes me function like a normal human being like hydrocodone. So yes, I know I am addicted, and if we could find something to replace it, I would gladly give up hydrocodone, but there is nothing out there like it for me. Lastly, my psychotherapies are numerous for treating my depression. TMS among others. I have worked with both psychiatrists and therapists for over 20 years and still no progress. They all know my situation and we have thrown everything we can think of at the wall and nothing sticks. And now I am almost 60, without a job because I have to care for my parent with dementia and literally I cannot function without my hydrocodone. I have no support system, no other family or friends and I cannot leave my parent until they die.

    I guess my question as always, is, is there anything that replicates the functioning success I have with hydrocodone so I can wean myself off of it?

    1. Hi Robert. I suggest that you call the helpline displayed on the website to get in touch with a trusted treatment consultant.

    1. Hi Bonnie. As an opioid it binds with all of the above! However, it primarily binds to and activates the mu-opioid receptor in the CNS. This leads to analgesia, euphoria, respiratory depression, miosis, decreased gastrointestinal motility, cough suppression and physical dependence.

  4. I am 75 years old. Have been on low dose (5-325) for six years due to fibromyalgia, small fiber neuropathy and arthritis. I have been taking 4 pills a day. My doctor said he can only prescribe 3 pills a day now (maybe it is his boss’ decision?) so he switched me to 7.5-325 and said to cut the pills in half. Also, I have aged tremendously in the last six months; is it just normal or is it due to the hydrocodone? Quite crippled too.

  5. my wife takes a back pain combo of hydrocodone and zanaflex. why has she tested twice in a row for codeine in a urine test? how does the body break down hydrocodone?

  6. Hi,
    I am trying to find out why Hydrocodone has such a lifting effect on people with CFS. If you review the CFS web sites you will find people saying the same thing. Hydrocodone gives them a life. It wakes up the brain, takes the weakness out of the spine and allows people to “have a life”. I believe there is a key to the success of this drug on CFS people and would like to know why? FYI, KRADOM has the same effects on CFS patients.

    All my best,

  7. Hi Robin. Talk to your doctor first. He/she can give you some valuable advise on how to lower doses and can help you create an individualized tapering schedule. Also, there are other medications our doc can prescribe to make the process more bareable and increase your chances for completely quitting the hydrocodone.

  8. I have had a gastric bypass in the early 90s. after about three and a half hours I start feeling withdrawal symptoms. I have been on hydrocodone since 2007 for degenerative disc disease. I know I am dependent on it. I have tried to wean off of it but my brain just won’t let there something I can do to get help for this

  9. Hi Amy. The answer is YES. Hydrocodone can increase the risk of life-threatening heart or circulation problems. This includes heart attack or stroke. It is better for you to ask for medical help if you have heart or chest pain.

  10. I have been taking Hydrocodone 10s in cycles for more than a year now. I now take 2-4 at a time. My heart hurts if I don’t take it now. Does Hydrocodone affect the heart? Can taking it cause a stroke or Heart Attack? Has anyone else had this symptom with their heart?

  11. Hello D. The short answer is: NO. You won’t experience the severity or intensity of the original withdrawal symptoms. However, you are prolonging the process of withdrawal. Seek professional guidance via a pharmacist or your prescribing doctor to set up an individualized tapering plan for yourself. You don’t need to go cold turkey off hydrocodone. But you also don’t need to suffer from withdrawal syndrome. There is middle ground, but you need medical advice to set up a plan that’s best for you!

  12. I am again a regular guy who was prescribed hydrocodone and ended up a slave to it! I have been taking approx 10 10mg hydros a day for the last six weeks and realized I was back in the viscious cycle I took nothing for two days and withdrawals were unbearable. Then the third day I took 1 10 mg and today I took half of a 7.5 am I gonna start the whole withdrawal over again???

  13. Hello Carol. Hmmm. The sense of well-being that you describe is clinically known as “euphoria” and is the chemical result of using opioids. I’d suggest that you speak about this with a psychotherapist to investigate alternatives…b/c using Vicodin to improve mood can lead to addiction.

  14. I have Fibromyalgia and neuropathy. I’ve been on many medications to deal with the pain. Most have left me fatigued and hopeless feeling, including Cymbalta. Recently I had a kidney stone and was prescribed Vicodin. I noticed that it really helped with my Fibromyalgia pain and asked my doctor if I could get more for times when the pain is bad. He agreed as long as I limit my consumption to one or two a day. They work well this way and I have been using at least one a day…usually at bedtime…for a couple of months. Recently I took one during the day and discovered that I felt more alert, energetic, and able to do things. Today I took one just for that reason alone as I was depressed and listless. I then went with a friend to visit a shut-in parent. Without it I would have stayed home in bed as I have done ever so many days. We played cards and I had I good time. I felt alive and useful. Good with life. I suspect this is a type of high, but there was no buzz or anything. Just a sense of well being. Living as I have been praying to be able to live for the last several years. I am 67 and afraid of living the rest of my life in pain and fatigue. Is there any way I can experience this sense of well being occasionally without becoming addicted or damaging my body further? I have never been addicted to any drugs, cigarettes or alcohol so I had assumed my likelihood of addiction was low. However I am now worried.

  15. Hello Christina. It takes about 3 weeks for the body to become physically dependent on opioids like hydrocodone. However, dependence is different than addiction. How long has the hydrocodone been prescribed? Do you feel high when taking it? Have you reported symptoms to your prescribing doctor?

  16. I had a complete knee replacement 2 1/2 weeks ago and also have RA. I am experiencing pain and taking hydro condone. As soon as the med wears off I am in pain again. I don’t want to become reliant on them but can not live with the pain level. How long before someone becomes addicted? The high is …only taking the edge off.

  17. Hello Star. Opioids like hydrocodone can cause euphoria through their interaction with the central nervous system. The precise mechanism of action of hydrocodone and other opiates is not known, although it is believed to relate to the existence of opiate receptors in the central nervous system. I’d suggest that you report the symptoms of euphoria to your prescribing doctor and possible a pharmacist. You can get more specifics about the way that hydrocodone works in the brain vs. anti depressants through a consult, and you can monitor these feelings during your use of hydrocodone with some specific guidelines to be sure that you don’t cross the link from use to abuse. Does that help?

  18. When I was on chemo I was given hydrocodone. As soon as the pain was relieved I stopped the meds quickly and early to avoid addiction. After chemo I feel depressed, no energy etc…have been off opiates for two years. When I did take one again (dentist) I felt happy, energetic and focused. Why? Is there an anti depressant that mirrors the effect? What part of my brain is being stimulated by the meds that’s not otherwise? Most anti depressants make me feel more depressed. They must be targeting something else? Any recommendations I can discuss with my doctor?

  19. Hello jp. Yes, the euphoric effect can influence anxiety. But this is the main cause of psychological dependence. Have you tried treating anxiety with cognitive behavioral therapies? Or psychotherapy in general?

  20. Due to RA and to a lessor extent UC, hydrocodone has been a huge help to me. The euphoria of pain relief coupled with whatever “high” is such a relief. I have anxiety issues and am hoping to find an anti anxiety medication that best accomplishes the hydrocodone affect but without the reality of a far worse situation using too much and the addiction balancing act. I am working with my primary Dr. but any additional advise most appreciated.


  21. Hello Mike. Experts still don’t know why exactly you can get high on opioids like hydrocodone. They do know that prescription painkillers work by binding to receptors in the brain to decrease the perception of pain. Create a feeling of euphoria is kind of like a secondary side-effect of this chemical reaction. Here’s some more on how opioids (man made opiates) work in the body and brain:

  22. I was addicted to hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab, Norco Etc.. And it worked I understand some what I just know it kills pain if taken as needed and to much will overdose if to much taken and it gets you “High” but I’m back on it (Taking it as needed for teeth removal) but anyway I want to learn more about it how it works I read the article great explanations and facts also great detail but I want to know how does it actually get you “High”? How does it make you feel that “Buzz”? Thank you for your time


  23. Hi John. Feeling high is a pretty distinct experience and one of extreme well-being. If you’re wondering if you’ve ever gotten high, you probably haven’t.

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