Is Oxycodone an Opioid?

Dr. Ximena Sanchez-Samper

Ximena Sanchez-Samper, MD is a Board- Certified Addiction Psychiatrist who obtained her degree as a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and completed her Addictions Fellowship through the combined Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital / Brigham and Women’s Hospital Addictions Fellowship program in 2004.

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Is Oxycodone Abuse the Same as Opioid Abuse?

Oxycodone is an opioid. It is considered a potent opioid that is intended to be judiciously prescribed to relieve pain. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of immediate-release oxycodone for the management of chronic moderate to severe pain.

Generally, prescriptions for oxycodone and other opioids are used only to manage symptoms of post-surgical pain or provide relief for intense pain caused by trauma or disease. Opioid prescriptions are considered appropriate when other strategies for pain management are insufficient. An estimated 3% to 19% of people who take prescription pain medications develop an addiction to them. In addition, people who misuse opioids often switch from prescription medications to “street” drugs because they are more easily available compared to medications that require interactions with doctors and other medical professionals. For example, the American Medical Association (AMA) reports that roughly 45% of people who begin using heroin start with an addiction to prescription opioids. 

With rising concerns about the crushing consequences of opioid addiction for individuals, families, and society, more and more people are trying to learn about the physical and biochemical effects of oxycodone and other opioids. What exactly is oxycodone? We’ll cover what everyone should know about this powerful opioid. 

What Is Oxycodone?

Oxycodone is a synthesized component of the poppy plant called thebaine. The drug is categorized as a semi-synthetic narcotic analgesic. When taken, oxycodone can create intense feelings of euphoria and relaxation. Some of the “street” names for oxycodone are “Roxy,” “Oxy,” and “Hillbilly Heroin.” 

What Are Opioids?

Like oxycodone, all opioids are either derived from or mimic the natural substances found in the opium/poppy plant. Opioids work by activating areas of nerve cells in the brain and body called opioid receptors. These receptors are responsible for blocking pain signals between the brain and the body. Aside from oxycodone, the list of common opioids includes morphine, codeine, hydrocodone, tramadol, and fentanyl. Common side effects of opioid drugs include:

  • Euphoria
  • Deep relaxation
  • Sleepiness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation/digestive distress

Even when prescribed under the supervision of a doctor, opioids still pose risks. The most common risk associated with opioid use is slowed breathing. Additionally, anyone taking opioids is at risk for developing increased drug tolerance or dependence. The only way to get the intended feeling from opioids for people who are dependent is to escalate to larger, more frequent doses. 

Higher doses increase a person’s risk of developing a form of slow breathing called hypoxia. Hypoxia can cause the amount of oxygen circulating within the body to dip too drastically compared to what is required for the body to maintain homeostasis. Severe cases of hypoxia can be fatal. 

What Happens When a Person Becomes Dependent on Oxycodone?

When a person becomes dependent on oxycodone or any other opioid, they have developed opioid use disorder (OUD). Previously known as opioid abuse, OUD is characterized as being a problematic pattern of opioid use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress. Signs of OUD include:

  • Taking oxycodone or another opioid for a longer period than intended
  • Taking larger amounts of an opioid than intended
  • Having strong cravings for opioids
  • Experiencing a strong and persistent desire to reduce the amount of opioids being consumed
  • Being unsuccessful in attempting to reduce or control opioid use
  • Spending a large amount of time sourcing and obtaining opioids
  • Spending a significant amount of time engaged in consuming opioids
  • Spending time recovering from opioids before being able to resume normal everyday activities 
  • Finding that opioid use is interfering with responsibilities at work, school, or home
  • Abandoning hobbies, socialization, recreation, or work- and school-related activities in order to spend more time engaged with opioids
  • Entering hazardous situations to be able to obtain or consume opioids
  • Continuing opioid use despite having persistent social or interpersonal problems

Symptoms of opioid use can creep into a person’s life to cause dysfunction, chaos, and isolation. Many people don’t realize the dangers of opioid use at first because some symptoms and consequences may creep in slowly. A person may feel that they have their usage under control for a long time until the situation begins to spiral. For example, the drowsiness and changes in sleep habits that are common with opioid use can cause a person to begin to struggle with work or school. They may begin to oversleep, forget to complete assignments, or simply feel disconnected when attempting to focus. 

Many people engaged in opioid abuse will also see changes in physical appearance. Weight loss is common. However, a loss of motivation to exercise can also cause weight gain, loss of muscle tone, and loss of physical strength. 

Opioid abuse can also have detrimental effects on oral health. The oral hygiene neglect that is common among opioid users can lead to tooth decay, gum disease, oral abscess, and tooth loss. The loss of function that results from tooth loss and oral decay can impact a person’s nutrition. Neglect of oral hygiene is one aspect of the overall hygiene neglect that can occur with opioid use. A person may fail to bathe, properly care for their hair, or take steps to protect their skin from damage by the sun or the elements. 

Many people who are in the midst of opioid misuse also experience a general sense of “unwellness” that is characterized by frequent flu-like symptoms, low energy, and decreased libido and sexual dysfunction. A combination of physical and behavioral changes can leave a person with OUD disconnected from others. They may self-isolate to avoid questions or judgments from friends and family. Additionally, they may resort to stealing from friends, family members, romantic partners, or employers in order to sustain an opioid habit. These behaviors can deepen the isolation that an opioid user experiences because they fuel distrust. 

Finally, a person struggling with OUD may face severe financial difficulties. These difficulties can come from the expense of obtaining the amount of opioids needed to prevent withdrawal, poor judgment regarding spending that comes from being under the influence of opioids, and an inability to earn an income due to the physical and emotional disruptions caused by opioid use.


One of the hallmarks of opioid use disorder is the development of tolerance. While tolerance usually builds up after heavy and prolonged opioid use, it can occur at different times for different people. Signs of opioid tolerance include:

  • A need for increased amounts of opioids in order to achieve the desired feeling
  • Feeling dissatisfied when using a consistent amount of an opioid 
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms unless higher amounts of an opioid are taken
  • Using opioids or similar-acting substances in order to stave off withdrawal symptoms

Opioid use disorder currently affects more than 16 million people globally. In the United States, more than 2.1 million people struggle with OUD. This disorder is also responsible for more than 120,000 deaths each year. Some of the risks that people trapped in OUD face include accidental overdose, suicide, trauma, and infectious diseases. 

How Is OUD Involving Oxycodone Treated?

Due to the intensity of opioid use disorder, most people aren’t able to tackle recovery on their own. Generally, a medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is recommended for prolonged recovery from opioid dependence. In fact, research shows that non-medication-based treatments for opioid use disorder may be more harmful than no treatment at all. Research shows that MAT can reduce the risk of death from overdose by as much as 38%.

Methadone and naltrexone are the two common medications used for managing opioid withdrawal. These medications can help to reduce physical withdrawal symptoms. They can also help to reduce cravings that can lead to relapses. 

The initial phase of treatment for OUD is detoxification. During detox, the person who is abusing opioids ceases use in order to allow the body to eliminate the drug. A medically supervised withdrawal is highly recommended due to the fact that opioid withdrawal syndrome can be fatal. What’s more, the intense discomfort of an unsupervised opioid withdrawal can increase a person’s likelihood of reverting to opioid use out of desperation for relief. 

While detox is essential for starting on the path to an opioid-free life, it is not considered sufficient for a full, long-term recovery. In order to maintain sobriety from opioid use, a person should be enrolled in a comprehensive treatment program that addresses the physical and emotional aspects of addiction. 

In most cases, an inpatient or residential treatment plan is also necessary to achieve long-term sobriety from opioids. These programs provide intensive care in supervised, controlled environments. A client will typically be able to access the following resources while participating in an inpatient program:

  • Individual counseling
  • Group therapy
  • Support services 
  • Alternative therapies ranging from meditation to eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

After making progress in a structured setting, an individual may pivot to an outpatient treatment plan that allows them to resume living at home while still devoting time to regular therapy and support groups. Additionally, medication-assisted treatments that were introduced during detoxification may be continued under medical supervision. The post-inpatient period is also a time for making lifestyle changes that support recovery and sobriety. This can include techniques for stress management, healthy eating, routine exercise, and socializing in healthy, low-risk environments. 

Getting Support for Oxycodone Abuse

Charles River Recovery is an evidence-based treatment center located in Weston, Massachusetts. Our highly experienced staff provides a collection of comprehensive treatment strategies for long-term recovery. After assessing our clients’ needs, we can make recommendations for tailored treatment plans that can include inpatient detox, clinical stabilization, and counseling in an understanding, trauma-informed setting. If you have questions related to oxycodone use by yourself or a loved one, give us a call today.