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Opiate Withdrawal: What It Is and How to Cope with It

Introduction

Opiate addiction is a growing problem in the United States and around the world. In the United States, there were more than four times as many unintended overdose deaths from prescription pain relievers in 2014 as there were in 1999.

If you have an opiate addiction, you know that withdrawal can be a tough obstacle in overcoming your addiction. Withdrawal is certainly not a walk in the park, but it is something you can get through. And you’re taking the first step by reading this article. Learning about the withdrawal process and ways to get through it is key to a successful, permanent break-up with opiates.

Opiate dependence and addiction

Coping

Opiate addiction can involve illegal drugs such as heroin. It can also involve prescription medications used to treat pain, such as:

Long-term use of any opiate — illegal or prescription — can lead to tolerance. This means you need to take more of the drug to get the same effects. And as you continue to use the drug, your body can become dependent on it. This means you’ll have withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking the drug. There's also psychological dependence, also known as addiction. With addiction, you have cravings for opiates and can’t control your use, even when it causes harm to you or others. All of these factors can mean you take more of the drug than recommended, which can lead to overdose. Addiction can also mean that you take illegal steps to get more of the drug.

The only way to stop opiate addiction is to stop taking the drug. This means going through the withdrawal process. To get through withdrawal successfully, it helps to know what to expect, such as symptoms and side effects.

TermExplanation
overdosetaking more of a drug than prescribed
toleranceneeding more of a drug to maintain the same effects
physical dependenceoccurs from continued use, leads to withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking the drug
psychological dependence (addiction)being unable to control your cravings and use, even when it’s harmful to yourself or others
withdrawal (detox)psychological and physical effects following the reduced or stopped use of a drug
 

Withdrawal symptoms and timeline

Timing

You’ll develop withdrawal symptoms as opiates leave your system. You may go through different withdrawal stages during the process, which is also called detox. The amount of time it takes you to get through detox depends on factors such as:

  • how severe your addiction is
  • your overall health
  • how often you used the opiate
  • the type of opiate you used

Early stages

During the early stages of withdrawal, symptoms begin around six to 30 hours after you stop taking the drug. The timing depends on the type of opiate you’re addicted to.

During these early stages of withdrawal, you may experience:

  • anxiety or irritability
  • muscle pain
  • body aches
  • tiredness
  • trouble sleeping
  • sweating

Later stages

About 72 hours after you stop taking the drug, symptoms are typically their worst. During this time, your early symptoms can become more severe. You may also have new symptoms such as:

  • chills
  • stomachache
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea

Overall timeframe

The first week of withdrawal is typically the worst, but be prepared for some symptoms to last longer. Symptoms typically last up to one month, but can linger for several months. Symptoms that can last longer than one week include tiredness, depression, anxiety, and trouble sleeping.

Withdrawal treatment

Treatment

Medications are available that can help you get through withdrawal. For instance, some treatments can shorten the withdrawal process and make symptoms less severe. These include:

  • clonidine hydrochloride, to treat common symptoms
  • naloxone, to reverse and treat heroin overdose
  • naltrexone, to prevent relapse
  • buprenorphine, used with naloxone during withdrawal to reduce symptoms or alone after detox to prevent relapse

In severe cases of methadone addiction, a doctor may actually prescribe methadone during withdrawal. The doctor gradually decreases your dosage over time to help reduce dependence. If you have questions about any of these treatments, your doctor can tell you more.

Learn more: Methadone withdrawal with methadone therapy »

Potential risks and benefits of withdrawal

Symptoms

Although it can be painful to get through withdrawal, the overall benefits outweigh any risks. Still, there are a few risks involved with the withdrawal process. These include:

  • severe diarrhea or excessive vomiting, which can lead to dehydration and loss of electrolytes
  • aspiration (breathing in vomit)
  • lung infections from aspiration
  • seizures

To find out more about these risks, talk to your doctor. Always keep in mind that the risks of withdrawal are much less dangerous than the risks of continuing your opiate addiction.

thumbs up Pros of quitting
  • You don’t need a drug to function in your daily life.
  • You can say goodbye to the side effects of opioid use, such as nausea, constipation, and risk-taking behavior to get more drugs.
  • You reduce your serious risks from opioid use, such as brain damage and premature death.
  • You improve your relationships with family and friends.
  • You save the money that you used to spend on drugs.

Keys to coping

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When you’re ready to kick your opiate habit, know that support is key to coping with opiate withdrawal. The more support you have, the more likely you’ll succeed in overcoming your addiction.

Professional care

Rather than going through withdrawal alone, consider going to a detox facility. There, you’ll be monitored closely by a team of healthcare providers who will help keep you safe and help relieve your withdrawal symptoms.

If you’d rather go through the withdrawal process at home, be sure to stay in close contact with your doctor. Tell them when you’re doing it, and before you start, discuss medications they could prescribe that might help you get through it. As you go through the process, be sure to report ongoing side effects to your doctor.

Emotional support

Be sure to tell your family and friends that you’re going through withdrawal. You’ll be facing a tough time, and having their support can make a big difference. If you’ll be at home, make sure at least one person checks on you every day.

Support groups and individual counseling are also options for emotional support. Narcotics Anonymous is one resource that could help you get off and stay off of opiates.

Preparation

Being prepared can make all the difference for your success in getting through withdrawal. If you’ll be at home, stock up on items you may need. These can include:

Fluids: If you have vomiting or diarrhea during withdrawal, you may be at risk of dehydration. So, it’s important to drink plenty of fluids. Consider purchasing drinks that contain electrolytes, such as Pedialyte.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications: OTC drugs may help you battle side effects from withdrawal. These products may include:

  • dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) or meclizine (Bonine) for nausea
  • Imodium (loperamide) for diarrhea
  • ibuprofen (Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) for muscle aches, chills, and fever

Activities: Be sure to have activities available to help keep you occupied. Books, movies, and music are all things that can help get your mind off of your withdrawal symptoms.

Support for the long haul

Dangers of relapse
Once you quit opiates, it’s important to stay off of them. Abusing opiates soon after trying to quit raises your risk of death. This is because your tolerance to the drug is lowered with periods of abstinence.

Withdrawal is just one step in the opiate recovery process. You’ll likely want to set up a plan for long-term success after opiate withdrawal. This can also include support groups, as well as mental health treatment. Other steps may help make your withdrawal experience easier. To find out more, read about remedies to ease opiate withdrawal symptoms.

Talk with your doctor

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Opiate withdrawal is uncomfortable, and you should be supervised by your doctor to help make sure you’re safe. But as difficult as it can be, withdrawal itself is generally not life-threatening, and it’s so worth the effort. Getting through the struggles of withdrawal allows you to move forward without the terrible risks and limitations of an opiate addiction.

To get started, talk to your doctor. They can help put you on the path to an opiate-free life. We won’t tell you that going through withdrawal is easy, but the pros definitely outweigh the cons. As mentioned above, you will have side effects during withdrawal. But these will likely last about one week, with some perhaps lasting a bit longer. Still, the benefits of taking your life back from opiate addiction far outweigh those negatives. During your withdrawal, focus on these positives that you can enjoy for the rest of your life after you break free from opioid use.

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