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Percocet: What It Is, Its Effects on the Body and Mind

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What is Percocet? “Percocet” is the trade name for a pill-based prescription drug generically known as paracetamol. It was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration in 1976 and has consistently ranked as one of the most commonly prescribed painkillers. Although Percocet has been used safely and without trouble by millions of patients over the years, it carries the risk of bodily harm and improper use can be habit-forming. Doctors prescribe Percocet for short-term use to treat acute pain, where the combination of oxycodone and acetaminophen can be especially effective.

What is Percocet

Percocet contains a combination of the opioid oxycodone with the analgesic acetaminophen (also known by its brand name, Tylenol). The drug’s manufacturer, Endo International, currently produces Percocet pills in four different strengths, each with a distinctive color.  The amount of oxycodone hydrochloride found in Percocet tablets varies from 2.5 to 10 milligrams. All strengths contain 325 milligrams of acetaminophen. Percocet is an opioid which means it is derived from the same source as heroin, opium, and morphine. The actual molecular structure of paracetamol is nearly identical to heroin. This is why it acts very similar to other opioids and opiates. Users can expect to feel drowsy, a sense of euphoria, and constipation, in addition to pain relief.  Other side effects of use include nausea, a faster or slower heart rate, dry mouth, pinpoint pupils, low blood pressure, shallow breathing, loss of appetite, dizziness, and mood changes such as depression.

How it works

Like other drugs from the same family, the oxycodone found in Percocet binds to opioid receptors found on cells throughout the body. That inhibits the ability to experience pain. It also contributes to the widespread release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure. The oxycodone present in Percocet also amplifies the effectiveness of the non-opioid painkiller acetaminophen. Some studies showing a perceived improvement of as much as 50 percent among subjects. This complementary effect can enable the management of moderate to severe pain at lower dosages of oxycodone than would otherwise be possible. This makes Percocet an effective tool for the short-term treatment of physical pain when used as prescribed and directed by a doctor.

Long-term effects

In addition to the risk of addiction, long-term use can create a host of negative consequences. Among these are increased tolerance, liver damage, kidney failure, and swelling of the hands or feet. Additionally, you may suffer from sexual dysfunction and decreased testosterone levels in men, chronic constipation, osteoporosis, and suppression of the immune system. Percocet is physically addictive and withdrawal is rough. Withdrawal is especially difficult for newborns borne of addicted mothers. Additionally, research has demonstrated that over time, Percocet can severely affect the executive functions of the brain and cognitive performance. As with other opioids, continued use of Percocet and higher dosages tend to increase the risks of abuse and addiction.

Percocet and depression

Percocet can also interfere with antidepressants which puts those suffering from depression at greater risk of harm. Taking both medications together can increase the risk of bleeding in the stomach. The acetaminophen in Percocet can actually reduce the effectiveness of many antidepressants. Additionally, the combination may increase the risk of serotonin syndrome. Serotonin syndrome symptoms include nausea, blood pressure changes, rapid heartbeat, and possible hallucinations. It can depress the central nervous system and slow breathing. This effect is increased if also taken in conjunction with alcohol or other medications. Be sure to alert your doctor if you’re on depression medication, sleep aids, tranquilizers or stimulants before taking Percocet.

How Percocet use easily becomes abuse

Although it contains an additional, non-opioid analgesic, the subjective experience of taking Percocet is similar to that of other pain relievers that contain opioids and opiates. In addition to offering significant pain relief, Percocet tends to give rise to a variety of positively pleasurable feelings. These feelings create a risk of abuse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that some patients who are prescribed opioid-based medications like Percocet end up abusing them for any of a variety of reasons. Some discover that such medications ease the symptoms of conditions other than those for which they were prescribed. The drug may initially improve another type of chronic pain. Percocet may obscure a mental health issue like depression or anxiety. In many other cases, habitual Percocet abuse arises among those simply seeking the pleasurable sensations the opioid oxycodone often gives rise to.

Signs and symptoms of abuse or addiction

Most doctors generally take care only to prescribe Percocet for short periods of time, at lower doses that are not likely to encourage drug addiction. People who succumb to the temptation to abuse Percocet will often display fairly obvious signs as they seek to acquire more of the drug. Some of the behavioral signals most often seen among those who abuse Percocet include:

  • Stealing or begging for others’ medication. As Percocet remains a commonly prescribed drug, many who start to abuse it will know others who have supplies of their own. People who suffer from Percocet-focused substance abuse disorder will often ask for or steal, pills from relatives, acquaintances, or even strangers.
  • Doctor shopping. A patient’s existing doctor and regular pharmacist watch for the signs of substance abuse. In order to keep up the habit, the user may switch pharmacists or change doctors often. They may create new pain problems to acquire a new prescription. This can allow someone with a developing habit to acquire more while remaining under the “radar” of those who would otherwise spot the signs of addiction.
  • Filing false police reports. Claiming that a prescribed supply of Percocet was stolen and filing a fabricated report with the police is another common way of obtaining more pills.

In addition to these behavioral changes, people who abuse Percocet and similar drugs will often display even more basic, obvious symptoms. Unusual drowsiness or confusion, mood swings and depression, and strange sleeping patterns can be causes for concern.

Risks of abuse or overuse

Although Percocet is considered safe when used as prescribed and directed, it can never be assumed so when abused. Even mild abuse of Percocet and similar pain relievers can easily lead to life-threatening problems later on. Some of the most significant threats that Percocet abuse can pose include:

Oxycodone overdose

A single overly high dose of oxycodone, as with other opioids, can be fatal. When available, the drug Naloxone can be used to reverse the respiratory depression that leads to death after an oxycodone overdose, but this should never be relied upon.

Acetaminophen poisoning

The high risk of taking acetaminophen tablets, even without the addition of an opioid painkiller is often underestimated. Despite being lightly regulated, the analgesic acetaminophen that is found in Percocet can cause severe liver damage or even complete liver failure with excessive dosages. The acetaminophen contained in paracetamol can cause damage to the liver at high dosages. The manufacturer, Endo International, as well as the FDA,  recommend that doctors never prescribe more than 12 Percocet tablets per day, of any dosage level, to their patients. Although Percocet is formulated so as to keep this risk to a minimum, those who abuse the drug can easily expose themselves to this danger. Taking a larger dose than prescribed, or taking it more often than prescribed, results in an overdose of acetaminophen.


As with any other type of opioid, taking Percocet for too long can lead to physiological and psychological addiction. What begins as a pattern of relatively mild abuse can easily grow into something far more serious, particularly as increasing tolerance leads to higher dosages.

Personal, professional, and financial harm

Even though Percocet is itself a legal prescription drug, many who abuse it end up putting their relationships and accomplishments at risk. The negative behaviors that are often used to facilitate Percocet abuse can cause serious, long-lasting damage of their own.

Overcoming a Percocet addiction

As of the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated four million Americans had abused oxycodone-based painkillers like Percocet at some point in the preceding year. Continued abuse raises the risks of becoming addicted to Percocet, at which point overcoming the problem inevitably becomes even more difficult. Fortunately, there are a variety of approaches people struggling with Percocet abuse or outright addiction can use to regain control. The various tools that are most often employed focus on issues including:

Withdrawal symptoms

One of the most devastating consequences of opioid addiction, in many cases, is that the user becomes physically dependent. The withdrawal process can be brutal. Once deprived of the opioids it has become dependent upon the body will react in a variety of painful and even unbearable ways. A doctor who specializes in addiction treatment may use medications as part of the detoxification process. Drugs that may be used to reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms include buprenorphine, methadone, naltrexone, and lofexidine.

Behavioral therapy

Becoming free of Percocet abuse or addiction often requires making strategic, significant modifications to living arrangements, everyday routines, and other basic facts of life. The underlying health and mental health disorders must be managed or resolved without the drug. Therapists and substance use addiction counselors work closely with their clients to develop new coping and life skills that enable life free of opiates.

Mental health care

Many people who abuse Percocet may do so, at least in part, because of pre-existing mental health issues like chronic depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Diagnosing and managing such concomitant conditions will often be an important component of Percocet addiction treatment.

Long-term sobriety is possible

Although Percocet abuse and addiction can be challenging to overcome, there are resources available for those who seek them out. Reaching out for help and support often proves to be the most important step on the road to recovery.