Opioid Withdrawal – Symptoms, Signs and How Long Does It Last?

Opioids are used for a few things in medicine, and the most important of them is pain treatment. However, opiates are very addictive, even if used under supervision. And risks grow to the sky if they are abused. When someone dependent on opioids suddenly reduces or stops their use, this person gets an opioid withdrawal.

It’s a kind of natural response of the body – it adjusts to the absence of the drug that was here for months or years. Opioid withdrawal can be triggered by various factors. The main factors are an abrupt halt of opioid use, a reduction in dosage, or the administration of an opioid antagonist medication. During withdrawal, a person faces multiple symptoms of opioid withdrawal – and none of them is pleasant. So, how to find the way out? What treatment is the best option in this situation?

Opioid Withdrawal

Symptoms of Opioid Withdrawal

Early opioid withdrawal symptoms can start amazingly fast — within hours of the last dose. They are:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Sweating
  • Runny nose
  • Muscle aches
  • Insomnia (sometimes)

These symptoms are close to the ones you experience when having the flu – and as you know, they can be highly uncomfortable. They are driving an individual to seek more opioids to alleviate them.

Peak symptoms typically occur within 1-3 days of withdrawal onset and include more severe symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Dilated pupils (mydriasis)
  • Goosebumps

You may know this phase as “cold turkey”. According to various sources and drug addicts their selves, it’s the hardest part of opioid withdrawal.

Most of the opioid withdrawal symptoms and signs typically last about 5-7 days. However, some things like insomnia, anxiety, and drug cravings can persist for weeks or even months, known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). PAWS can make recovery quite hard, as individuals may experience intermittent symptoms that can trigger a relapse.

Effects of Opioid Withdrawal: Physiological & Psychological

When you face opioid withdrawal, it’s always about some physiological effects. The most important of them are neurotransmitter imbalances and quite unpleasant hormonal changes.

  • Neurotransmitter imbalances are a hallmark of opioid withdrawal. Opioids, such as heroin or prescription painkillers, act on the brain’s reward system. They boost the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine – it is responsible for feelings of pleasure and euphoria. When opioid use is stopped suddenly, the brain struggles to readjust. And that leads to a decrease in dopamine levels. This can result in intense cravings, depression, anxiety, and irritability.
  • An individual can also face hormonal changes during his or her withdrawal from opiates. The mentioned drugs can disrupt the normal functioning of the endocrine system, which regulates hormones. As a result, withdrawal may lead to imbalances in hormones such as cortisol. What will become as a result? Unpleasant things like increased heart rate, sweating, and gastrointestinal distress.
  • Anxiety and depression are common psychological effects of opioid withdrawal. This state is characterized by feelings of fear, worry, and sadness.
  • During a withdrawal, mood swings are quite a common thing. The emotions can rapidly shift from one extreme to another. These psychological effects can significantly impact a person’s well-being and daily functioning.

As you can see, these effects aren’t to be taken lightly. Comprehensive support and top-level treatment are crucial for managing these challenges.

COWS: What Is Clinical Opiate Withdrawal Score

Have you heard the term “Clinical Opioid Withdrawal Scale” – or the acronym “COWS”? This is a powerful tool used by healthcare professionals to assess the severity of opioid withdrawal symptoms. It consists of the 11 most common symptoms that people face in this process. They are:

  1. Restlessness
  2. Pupil size
  3. Bone or joint aches
  4. Runny nose or tearing
  5. Gastrointestinal (GI) upset
  6. Tremor
  7. Yawning
  8. Anxiety or irritability
  9. Gooseflesh skin
  10. Pulse rate
  11. Sweating

A doctor rates each symptom on a scale from 0 to 4 or 5. 0 is indicating the symptom is not present and you are doing well. And 4 (5) indicating the symptom is severe and your withdrawal won’t be easy. They sum up the total score by adding the scores for each symptom. The higher the opioid withdrawal score is – the harder the process is. The COWS helps healthcare providers determine the best course of treatment. It’s very useful for managing opioid withdrawal and monitoring the patient’s progress in it.

Management and Treatment of Opioid Withdrawal

Managing opioid withdrawal is crucial for individuals seeking to break free from addiction. Withdrawal management involves both medical and psychological care in a tranquil environment. Medications like methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone are commonly used to alleviate symptoms and cravings. Behavioral therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) complement medication by addressing underlying causes and preventing relapse. Prevention strategies like harm reduction and support from groups like Narcotics Anonymous are essential for long-term recovery. For more detailed information on treatment options and support, visit our article on Opioid Treatment And Rehab.

The Bottom Line

Opioid withdrawal is never easy. However, thousands of Americans pass this process every year. It requires professional support and care, medications such as methadone and buprenorphine, and much more. Behavioral therapies, harm reduction strategies, support groups, and counseling – all of these things are a must to cope with withdrawal and prevent relapse.

You should never try to withdraw from opiates on your own! Things and “guides” you may find on the Internet aren’t checked by healthcare professionals and can lead to severe consequences. Instead, search for the best methadone clinics in your region and choose among them. It will be the first step in your journey towards a healthier, drug-free life!