From Vicodin to Heroin: Why Prescription Opioids Lead to Addiction


While it is common knowledge that some prescription drugs can be addictive, it is less known that there is a direct tie between prescription drug abuse and heroin use. When confronted with this knowledge, many people are confused. How could using things like painkillers lead to using heroin? The truth is as surprising as it is tragic.

Most people that abuse prescription drugs do so with things like OxyContin and Vicodin that are, like heroin, opioids. Unfortunately, they falsely believe that these drugs are safe and will not hurt them. What most people do not realize is that these pills may be highly addictive, and most prescriptions for them will not last forever. Inevitably, as dependency develops, the person runs out of their prescription medication to take. They will often turn to heavier narcotics like heroin as a cheaper and more easily accessible alternative. And why wouldn’t they? Opioids like Vicodin effect the brain in a very similar way to heroin.

OxyContin, Vicodin, and heroin all have similar effects; a sense of overwhelming joy, nausea, exhaustion, and sometimes the slowing of breath. Each dose of these drugs raises the recipient’s tolerance, thus making them need more of the drug next time to get the same effect. With how similar these drugs are, it is hardly surprising that those suffering from dependence will go to heroin when it is available at one-tenth of the price. What starts as someone mistakenly believing that they can take Vicodin for an easy high can all too quickly spiral into that same person buying heroin and transferring their addiction to that. This happens more and more every day.

Today there are more prescriptions written for painkillers than ever before, and there has never been less societal scrutiny for using medications for purposes other than intended. The number of prescriptions for opioids was only 76 million in 1991, and was 207 million in 2013 [1]. As the number of prescriptions issued increases, so does the number of people who abuse these drugs and eventually are forced to turn to heroin. The worst part? Many of these people do not ever intend to abuse their prescriptions.

Vicodin is, despite being FDA approved, known to be highly addictive even under the best of circumstances. While it is true that the risk of addiction goes up with misuse, someone can take it exactly as prescribed and still find themselves addicted. In the past, most heroin users were poor and lived in lower class neighborhoods, but an increasing number of middle class people in suburbs are finding themselves developing an addiction. Many of these people took their prescriptions as directed, but with drugs like Vicodin, there is never a guarantee that addiction can be avoided.

The takeaway of this is not to be afraid of prescription painkillers. Vicodin and OxyContin are useful prescription drugs that have helped millions of people. But there is no denying that prescription opioids can be addictive and have been known to turn to heroin abuse.