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Opiates and Opiate Withdrawal: Symptoms & Treatment

According to a 2011 survey conducted by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 25 million people over the age of 12 identified as using illicit drugs within the past month. Additionally, a survey completed in 2013 shows 1.8 million people suffering from opioid use disorder. Of those individuals, 517,000 people suffer from heroin abuse disorder.

An opioid drug is a narcotic or painkilling drug. Many known opioids include heroin, morphine, codeine, oxycodone, Vicodin, Percocet, fentanyl and methadone. As individuals consume opioid drugs, they create a dependency for them. Once a substance or drug is removed, an individual will begin to experience withdrawal symptoms and cravings for the drug. Proper detoxification and treatment may be needed depending on the extent of the dependency, which includes the length of time used, amount used, and route of use. 

What is Drug Withdrawal?

According to the Mayo Clinic, a drug withdrawal is defined as when a physical or mental symptom occurs upon reduction or stopping the intake of a substance.

What is Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)?

PAWS are the symptoms that occur after the acute withdrawal has passed. These identifiers for opioid use (and oftentimes many other substance use disorders) include:

  • Cravings
  • Exhaustion
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Depression

These identifiers are important to recognize because they can last for weeks or months after last use due to inappropriate tapering off of the opiate or drug. They are indicators of high relapse potential and it is important in the treatment process to help the individual recognize them and utilize prevention procedures.

Withdrawal Symptoms: How Long Do They Last?

Opioid withdrawal symptoms produce both physical and psychological effects. Many of the physical symptoms mimic flu-like symptoms.

Physical symptoms may include:

  • Muscle tension
  • Tearing
  • Running nose
  • Sweating
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea/Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Dilated pupils 
  • Goosebumps

Psychological symptoms may include:

  • Agitation
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

 Timeline from WorkitHealth.com

Opiate withdrawal symptoms typically begin between 12-72 hours after the last dose. Physical symptoms are the most apparent initially and can last 72 hours to 10 days after the last dose is taken. Once the body has gotten rid of all opiate substances, physical symptoms will go down, and the body goes into the next phase of withdrawal.

This phase is when most psychological and emotional symptoms occur, approximately 2 weeks after the last dose of the substance. The individual should be aware of the Post-Acute Withdrawal Symptoms around 3- 4 weeks after the last dose, which includes high cravings and enhanced emotional symptoms such as depression.

Drug Detox Withdrawal: Causes and Treatment

Going cold turkey? According to Mayo Clinic, attempting to go “cold turkey” off opioids can be dangerous and can cause severe symptoms which should be monitored by a healthcare professional. The body experiences withdrawal symptoms due to its natural ability to detoxify the body of harmful toxins such as drugs like opiates.

A detox treatment center would be ideal for any individual looking to stop using opiate drugs and to have the body detoxed appropriately. There are also medically-assisted drugs that can help the body during the detox process and lower craving symptoms:

  • Buprenorphine
  • Methadone
  • Suboxone

Tapering Off Opiates: When and How?

When deciding to come off an opiate, it is important to consult a doctor or medical professional to create a medication withdrawal plan or a taper. This will allow time for the body to slowly come off the drug by utilizing a set plan with amounts and times at which the individual will use less and less of the drug over time until they are no longer using it. A safe opioid taper includes:

  • Regular blood pressure, pulse and temperature tests
  • Urine samples or blood samples
  • Introduction of other pain therapies
  • Prescription of other medications

Treatment Options

Treatment options are available for all individuals. The best treatment recommendation for opioid use disorder follows this order:

  1. Detox Program
  2. Inpatient Program
  3. Partial Hospitalization Program
  4. Intensive Outpatient Program
  5. General Outpatient Program

Each level of care can be determined by the medical professional during an initial assessment process at the local hospital, detox, or substance abuse center. Do not wait to sit through the detox period by yourself, because this could lead to more severe complications if not treated appropriately and carefully.

Where Should I Go For Help?

Looking for help with your opiate use or opiate withdrawal? Seek out your local hospital emergency room or known detox treatment center. Remember to be honest about the amount you used and the length of time you have used to ensure appropriate care is given.

If it is the first time in treatment or you are out of state, you can also use DetoxLocal or call 888-429-0191 to find a center near you. In case of an emergency please dial 911.

Ready to get help for yourself or someone you love? Malvern Treatment Centers can provide a safe and positive atmosphere for withdrawal, inpatient care, and lifelong recovery needs.

By: Sarah Roberts, BS

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