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Recognizing Opioid Withdrawal and Linking to Immediate Treatment

What is opioid withdrawal?

  • Opioid withdrawal has a wide range of symptoms, as shown in Table 4, that occur after stopping or reducing the use of opioid drugs. With short-acting opioids, such as heroin or morphine, withdrawal can last up to 10 days, but it most often lasts between 3 and 5 days. With longer- acting opioids, such as methadone, symptoms peak between day 3 and day 8 and may persist for several weeks.
  • Although opioid withdrawal can cause very troubling symptoms (such as vomiting, cramps, sweating, diarrhea, and dehydration), it is rarely life-threatening when treated appropriately. However, for the individual these symptoms can be acutely distressing, potentially triggering suicidal thoughts and actions.

Team members who suspect a participant may be experiencing opioid withdrawal should contact the treatment provider or otherwise ensure that the participant is assessed and helped to manage the withdrawal if confirmed.

Opioid Withdrawal Management

  • Using medications to control withdrawal is almost always recommended over managing withdrawal without medication.
  • When participants try to quit “cold turkey,” it can lead to risky complications, stronger cravings, and continued use, overdose, and death.
  • Withdrawal management on its own is not a treatment method. It may cause strong cravings, which can lead to continued use. In addition, the risk of death from fatal overdose is markedly increased after withdrawal management due to the loss of tolerance and high likelihood of return to use.