Opiates are highly addictive and difficult to stop due to the vicious withdrawal symptoms they produce. One of the reasons so many people continue abusing prescription opiates is simply to avoid feeling sick from withdrawal. Unfortunately, the longer people use opiates, the longer their withdrawal symptoms will last. Let’s take a deeper look into the opiate withdrawal timeline to understand why this happens and what to expect while detoxing.
What Causes Opiate Withdrawal?
Opiates, or opioids, refer to a group of narcotic medications that are used to relieve pain. While safe when taken as prescribed, approximately 11.4 million people used prescription opiates without having an actual prescription in 2018. Common opiates of abuse include:
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
- Oxycodone (Percocet, Oxycontin)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
When consumed, opiates attach directly to opioid receptors in the brain. This activates these receptors and increases the reuptake of dopamine – a neurotransmitter responsible for pain relief and feelings of pleasure. After repeated opiate use, this release of excess dopamine in the brain becomes associated with feeling any kind of pleasure. As a result, the brain becomes dependent on opiates to feel “good” or to function “normally.”
Once the brain is dependent on opiates, the body is, too. That means people who are dependent on opiates will experience physical and mental withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop using painkillers. In order to avoid going into withdrawal, many drug users will continue using opiates or increase their dosage. Eventually, the body will need more and more of the drug to feel normal and avoid going into withdrawal. This is referred to as tolerance.
The longer and more frequent a person uses opioids, the longer the opiate withdrawal timeline will last and the more severe their withdrawal symptoms will be.
Opiate Withdrawal Symptoms
Symptoms of opiate withdrawal are similar to those of the flu. While they are typically not life-threatening, they can be painful and dangerous if left untreated.
Early symptoms of opiate withdrawal are:
- Anxiety and depression
- Muscle aches
- Watery eyes
- Increased yawning
- Runny nose
Late and more severe opiate withdrawal symptoms include:
- Stomach cramps
- Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Dilated pupils
Factors That Affect How Long Opiate Withdrawal Lasts
There are several factors that affect the opiate withdrawal timeline. The first is which type of opiate was taken. Some opiates have a short half-life, and, therefore, have shorter withdrawal timelines, while other opiates are far longer-lasting.
Short-acting opioids include:
- Immediate-release oxycodone
- Immediate-release hydrocodone
These short-acting opiates will produce withdrawal symptoms within the first 8-24 hours after a person takes their last dose. Symptoms of withdrawal may last for up to 10 days.
Longer-acting opioids include:
- Extended-release morphine
- Extended-release oxycodone or hydrocodone
When it comes to long-acting opiates, it may take up to 36 hours for withdrawal symptoms to set in. Then, symptoms can last for 2 weeks or more.
Other factors that impact how long opiate withdrawal lasts are:
- The longer and more frequently someone abuses opiates, the longer their symptoms will last
- People who take a higher dose on a regular basis may experience longer-lasting withdrawal symptoms
- People with older age, high body weight, slow metabolism, or poor liver function may experience a longer withdrawal timeline
- The more severe a person’s symptoms are, the longer withdrawal may last
Opiate Withdrawal Timeline
How long opiate withdrawal lasts varies from one person to the next depending on their health, substance use patterns, and type of drug they are taking. For most people, a general opiate withdrawal timeline will look similar to this:
- First 6 – 12 hours: Early symptoms begin such as racing heartbeat, irritation, anxiety, insomnia, and depression. For long-acting opiates, these symptoms may not appear for up to 30 hours.
- 12 – 72 hours: Symptoms will peak between 12 and 72 hours. Users will experience muscle pains, diarrhea, chills, nausea, depression, and intense cravings.
- 72 hours – 1 week: Symptoms should begin to subside after 72 hours but can last for up to a week. For long-acting opiates, symptoms may not begin to subside after the 7-day mark.
- After 1 week: After a week most symptoms should fade away except for depression, anxiety, and cravings. People who are addicted to long-acting opiates, however, may continue to have minor physical symptoms for up to a month.
Medically-Assisted Opiate Detox
The safest way to detox from opiates is to do so at a medical detox facility. Even though opiate withdrawal is typically not deadly, it can be uncomfortable and nearly impossible to complete alone. Instead, medical detox centers can administer medications, provide emotional support, and offer 24/7 monitoring to keep recovering individuals safe.
Medication-assisted treatment can help lessen the severity of withdrawal symptoms and even shorten the opiate withdrawal timeline. Medications used in opiate detox may include:
- Methadone – a medication that helps alleviate withdrawal symptoms during detox.
- Buprenorphine – a medication contained in Subutex and Suboxone that helps alleviate withdrawal symptoms and cravings while preventing opioid misuse.
- Clonidine – a blood pressure medication that may be administered to treat anxiety, muscle aches, high blood pressure, and other symptoms.
- Sleep medications to help with insomnia (either over-the-counter or by prescription)
- Stomach medications to help treat diarrhea or vomiting depending on a person’s symptoms
Depending on the person’s individual factors and the type of opiate they are detoxing from, medical detox can last anywhere from a couple of days to two weeks. Once a person is deemed medically stable, they should work with an addictions specialist to come up with a post-detox treatment plan. After all, neither medications nor a detox program can cure addiction – it requires extensive treatment.
Find Help Today
At PAX Riverbend Rehab Center we have a team of dedicated and expert medical staff that can provide the supervised clinical care needed to get started on the recovery journey. Call us today to learn more about our opiate addiction treatment program.
Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019
All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.