Hydrocodone is a strong opioid drug that works by blocking pain signals in the brain. The time it takes for hydrocodone to leave the system varies from person to person. In general, it can be anywhere from a day to a few weeks.

According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), hydrocodone is the opioid that doctors in the U.S. most frequently prescribe. The drug can treat pain caused by conditions such as arthritis or cancer. In many cases, doctors also use it to treat persistent cough.

Many people know this medication as Vicodin, though Vicodin is a combination of hydrocodone and another drug, called acetaminophen. Other brand names for this combination include Norco, Lortab, and Lorcet.

These hydrocodone-based medicines have a high potential for abuse. In 2014, the DEA classified them as Schedule II drugs. This category includes drugs with medical uses but a high potential for psychological dependence and overuse.

Another issue with hydrocodone is that it can leave traces in the body for a long time, and healthcare professionals can detect even small doses in a person's blood, urine, saliva, and hair.

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Hydrocodone can stay in the saliva up to 36 hours after a dose.

According to Addiction Resource, it takes at least 18–24 hours for the body to be clear of hydrocodone.

However, the timing varies significantly, depending on the area of the body that a healthcare provider is testing. Traces of the drug can remain in certain areas well beyond 24 hours.

For instance:

  • In the blood, hydrocodone is present at its highest level in about 1.3 hours and is detectable for up to 24 hours after intake.
  • In the saliva, tests can detect hydrocodone anywhere between 12 and 36 hours after a dose.
  • In the urine, tests can detect the drug for around 2–4 days after a person takes it.
  • In the hair, traces of hydrocodone are detectable for the longest period — nearly 90 days after a person takes the drug.

There are many reasons why the time that it takes for hydrocodone to leave the body varies. Some factors that influence this include:

Dosage

A doctor prescribes a dosage depending on a person's height, weight, and body fat composition, so dosages vary from person to person.

The higher the dose, the longer it takes for the body to metabolize the drug and for hydrocodone to leave the system.

Age

Younger people process hydrocodone more quickly than older adults. This is mostly because their organ systems are stronger and healthier, compared with the systems of adults.

Genetics

In the body, there are two classes of enzymes that help process hydrocodone: CYP450 and UDP-glucuronosyltransferases.

The quality and quantity of these enzymes vary from person to person according to their genes. This, too, can affect how a person metabolizes a drug.

Frequency of intake

When a person uses hydrocodone for a longer period — such as months or years — it likely takes longer to eliminate the drug from their system, compared with people who only take hydrocodone for a few days.

This effect is related to pharmacodynamic tolerance. To put it simply, higher doses of hydrocodone take longer to leave the body than lower doses that a person takes for a shorter time.

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Hydrocodone can cause difficulty sleeping.

Common side effects of hydrocodone use include:

The American Addiction Centers also list symptoms that people who take hydrocodone report less frequently. These are:

  • swelling in the hands or feet
  • cold-like symptoms, such as sneezing, a sore throat, or a stuffy nose
  • missed periods
  • drowsiness or a nagging feeling of fatigue
  • difficulty sleeping
  • a loss of interest in sex
  • loss of appetite
  • pain or burning sensation while urinating
  • muscle pain and back pain
  • confusion

Hydrocodone also has the potential to cause weak or shallow breathing, so people with asthma or a respiratory condition should check with their doctor about other forms of treatment.

Hydrocodone is an addictive drug, so it is not uncommon for people to misuse it or consume more than the prescribed dose.

One condition that can occur in people who misuse opioids, including hydrocodone, is narcotic bowel syndrome, in which the drug causes bowel function to slow.

Narcotic bowel syndrome causes symptoms such as:

  • bloating
  • constipation
  • abdominal distention
  • nausea
  • vomiting

If a person misuses hydrocodone by taking it via the nose, it can cause them to lose their sense of smell. Snorting the drug can also lead to nosebleeds, congestion, and frequent sinus infections.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, long term use of hydrocodone alongside acetaminophen increases the risk of liver damage and liver failure. This is especially the case with medicines that combine the two drugs, such as Vicodin.

Hydrocodone abuse may also cause damage to the kidneys, and the person may require dialysis. Learn more about dialysis here.

The length of time that hydrocodone stays in the body varies from person to person. This is due to factors such as age, genetics, and the frequency of intake. In general, one dose takes at least 18–24 hours to leave the body.

There are certain risks associated with hydrocodone, especially in the case of long term use. People on hydrocodone treatment should take it as their doctor has instructed and report any side effects.