What is Opiate Withdrawal?

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Opiate withdrawal is a condition that many prescription opiate medication users and abusers experience, as well as those who take illicit street opiates like heroin and opium. According to the NLM, opiate withdrawal “refers to the wide range of symptoms that occur after stopping or dramatically reducing opiate drugs after heavy and prolonged use (several weeks or more).”

It isn’t a definite sign of abuse or addiction because “some people even withdraw from opiates after being given such drugs for pain while in the hospital without realizing what is happening to them.” But those who do experience it as a result of illicit substance abuse will have a difficult time, as cravings will likely be a part of the process too.

Why Does Opiate Withdrawal Occur?

Opiate withdrawal occurs because people become dependent on opiate drugs after taking them for an extended period of time. Dependence is defined by the NIDA as “a state in which an organism functions normally only in the presence of a drug.” After a person takes opiates for a while in high doses, “the neurons adapt to the repeated drug exposure” and will only function the way they should when the drug is present.

opiate withdrawal

Opiate withdrawal can cause painful symptoms.

The NLM states that, “when the person stops taking the drugs, the body needs time to recover, and withdrawal symptoms result.” These occur because the person is physically and psychologically dependent on opiates, and the body manifests the absence of this drug into withdrawal symptoms.

What are the Symptoms of Opiate Withdrawal?

The symptoms of opiate withdrawal are uncomfortable, painful, and sometimes unbearable. Many people who abuse opiates will relapse during withdrawal, just to stop the more painful symptoms like muscle and bone aches and pains. The syndrome is similar to the flu, and a person going through it will exhibit these symptoms:

  • Runny nose
  • Chills
  • Goosebumps
  • Sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Tearing
  • Insomnia
  • Dilated pupils

These symptoms will usually last for about a week and can be very uncomfortable. Considering treatment is important because many people cannot go through withdrawal from opiates without it and it isn’t necessary to do so.

How is Opiate Withdrawal Treated?

Opiate withdrawal is treated with different medications. Someone who is going through a mild version due to opiate use for several weeks may just need to be tapered off the drug. Others, like heroin and prescription opiate addicts, need to be treated with specific medications.

The NLM states, “The most commonly used medication, clonidine, primarily reduces anxiety, agitation, muscle aches, sweating, runny nose, and cramping” while there are other medications which can be used to treat diarrhea and other physical problems. Keep in mind that opiate withdrawal treatment is not the same as opiate addiction treatment, although it is a good way to start off the latter. Many detox facilities offer therapy and counseling in order to help patients transition into addiction treatment when withdrawal is through.

Opiate withdrawal is a condition that occurs when someone who has become dependent on opiates (through legal means or no) is suddenly taken off the drug. The condition can be very uncomfortable and should be treated but is not usually life-threatening.


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