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Oxycodone Abuse Among Elderly Citizens

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Oxycodone effects can be more dangerous among the elderly than younger adults when misused. Abusing oxycodone can lead to addiction and increase risk for life-threatening overdose. Older adults who abuse it may need inpatient treatment.

Millions of people in the United States are struggling with addiction or abuse of prescription pain medications. This includes oxycodone, one of the most common prescription opioids. Also known as OxyContin, oxycodone is a powerful pain reliever.

Over recent years, opioid abuse among elderly citizens has been on the rise. Pain conditions are common among the elderly, and doctors are often more likely to prescribe strong pain relievers to older patients than those younger.

When taken as prescribed, oxycodone can effectively relieve moderate to severe pain. However, chronic use of oxycodone poses some serious risks, including dependence and addiction. This risk can be higher among older adults, who tend to be more sensitive to drug effects.

Misuse of oxycodone can be dangerous for elderly people and potentially life-threatening. Older adults that abuse oxycodone may need inpatient treatment to overcome their drug misuse and identify safer alternatives for pain relief.

Opioids and Chronic Pain: Causes Of Oxycodone Drug Abuse Among Elderly

Opioid use disorders (OUDs) are complex, and cannot always be traced back to a single cause. Elderly people, in particular, may abuse oxycodone for various reasons. Growing older leads to some very common life changes that can be stressful to handle.

Many elderly people abuse opioid prescriptions to experience more effective pain relief. According to one study, this is the primary motivator among older adults. Sometimes this is because their prescribed amount is not enough to treat their pain.

Older people may develop drug tolerance quickly, requiring high dosages to feel the same pain relief. This may lead to them increasing dosages on their own to manage pain, with or without prescriber approval. This can be dangerous, risking severe drug dependence and addiction.

Other common reasons for oxycodone abuse among the elderly include:

  • a feeling of euphoria from high doses
  • to help them fall/stay asleep
  • to manage symptoms of anxiety or depression
  • to avoid oxycodone withdrawal
  • undertreatment of pain
  • coping with life changes (e.g. retirement, divorce)
  • coping with the death of a family member or loved one

There are several ways older adults may get their supply of oxycodone. Most receive the drug through a legitimate prescription from a doctor. Oxycodone may also be bought through a drug dealer. This is less common among people with a disability or those primarily home-bound. Other sources may include family members, stealing from a pharmacy, or sharing and trading with others.


Signs Of Oxycodone Abuse In Senior Citizens

If an elderly person you know is taking oxycodone, it can be helpful to know the signs of misuse.

Signs of oxycodone abuse among elderly citizens include:

  • taking higher doses than prescribed
  • taking it more often than prescribed
  • getting oxycodone from a friend or relative
  • getting oxycodone prescriptions from more than one doctor
  • becoming more anxious or depressed
  • acting defensive when confronted about drug use
  • isolating from others
  • having trouble remembering things or acting confused

Knowing these signs and symptoms of oxycodone abuse can help you get proper treatment for your loved one faster.

Side Effects Of Oxycodone Abuse

Oxycodone misuse can affect the body and brain in many ways. These side effects can be even more intense in the elderly. Other age-related health conditions can also influence the type and severity of oxycodone side effects.

Oxycodone side effects in the elderly include:

  • dizziness
  • constipation
  • decreased coordination
  • breathing problems
  • headaches
  • confusion
  • nausea
  • heart failure

Risk Factors For Oxycodone Abuse Among Elderly Citizens

There are several factors that can put a person at greater risk for developing a substance abuse problem. One of these risk factors is older age.

This doesn’t mean every older adult who takes prescription drugs will become addicted. However, the likelihood is increased due to older adults metabolizing drugs slower and, in many cases, being more likely to receive prescription opioids for pain.

Other risk factors for oxycodone abuse among the elderly include:

  • previous history of substance abuse
  • mental health disorders (e.g. anxiety, depression, PTSD)
  • snorting, smoking, or injecting it
  • abusing more than one substance
  • lacking social support
  • memory problems

Health Dangers Of Oxycodone Abuse

Oxycodone abuse can pose a serious danger to older adults. Oxycodone can slow down breathing, heart rate, and impact other essential functions in the body. Taking large or multiple doses can be life-threatening. This is especially true for elderly adults, who can experience serious side effects at lower doses.

Taking high doses of oxycodone can lead to overdose. This occurs when someone has taken too much of the drug in a short timeframe, resulting in harmful effects. In severe cases, overdose can be fatal, most often as a result of cardiac arrest or respiratory depression.

Other dangers of oxycodone abuse among elderly people include:

  • Fall Risk: Elderly citizens taking oxycodone may be at four to five times higher risk of suffering a fall or fracture than those taking a non-opioid pain reliever.
  • Cognitive Effects: Older adults may also experience greater mental confusion as a result of their oxycodone abuse. This can worsen symptoms of other age-related conditions causing cognitive decline.
  • Polysubstance Abuse: Mixing oxycodone with alcohol or other drugs can be dangerous. This can cause more intense side effects and can lead to overdose more quickly. Elderly patients often take more than one prescription medication. Monitoring use of oxycodone with other medications is important to prevent life-threatening symptoms.
  • Addiction: Older adults can become dependent on oxycodone faster than younger adults, and at lower doses. This can lead to physical and psychological addiction. People who become addicted to oxycodone may need inpatient treatment.

In addition, experts report that cases of substance abuse among the elderly can often go untreated or misdiagnosed.

This is in part due to the symptom overlap between opioid abuse and other age-related health conditions. Several side effects of oxycodone such as confusion and fatigue can often be attributed to other aspects of aging. This can mask the problem and act as a barrier to getting the right treatment.

It is also more rare for older adults to seek help for their drug abuse on their own. It may be more likely that a relative, friend, or caregiver notices the oxycodone misuse.

Treatment For Oxycodone Abuse Among Elderly Patients

Oxycodone addiction is a serious problem that can be overcome with the right treatment. The safest recommendation for treating oxycodone abuse among the elderly is inpatient treatment.

Inpatient programs provide a safe and supervised environment for people to stop using addictive drugs and recover from drug abuse. These programs have shown to be just as effective for older adults as younger adults. Many older patients also benefit from regular medical care in these programs to monitor any other health conditions.

Treatment programs commonly offer behavioral therapy and medication-assisted treatment, both of which have shown to be effective for treating oxycodone abuse. By reaching out for help, you can develop a treatment plan with specialists to identify options that meet your needs.

For more information on treating oxycodone abuse in older adults, contact one of our specialists today.

Oxford Academic - Undertreatment of Pain: A Prescription for Opioid Misuse Among the Elderly?

Center for Substance Abuse Research - Oxycodone

National Institute on Drug Abuse - The CDC Provides Crucial New Guidance on Opioids and Pain

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