Can Opioid Withdrawal be Deadly?

Young woman suffering from a severe opioid withdrawal

Opioid abuse has spiked sharply over the past decade, with more than 72,000 people dying from a drug overdose in 2017. Thousands of people struggle daily with opioid use, yet few get the treatment they need. Additionally, there is a lack of education about the causes and consequences of opioid abuse. In particular, people commonly underestimate the adverse side effects of opioid withdrawal.

Lack of awareness of the severity of opioid withdrawal further increases the burden of opioid abuse and risk for serious consequences, including death.

Common Symptoms of Opioid Withdrawal

The majority of people who use opioid drugs  — including synthetic opioids, pain pills, or heroin — over an extended period of time will develop a dependence on the drug. Physical dependence refers to the body adjusting to the presence of opioids. Eventually, the brain and body expect opioids to be available to function without distressing. All of your organ systems adjust their everyday functioning to accommodate the presence of the drug. This physiological change causes people to use more and more of the opioids to achieve the same effect; a condition commonly known as drug tolerance.

When opioids are no longer present, such as when someone tries to quit suddenly, a phenomenon known as withdrawal syndrome occurs. Withdrawal is the body’s reaction to the absence of opioids.

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Opioid Withdrawal Commonly Includes the Following Symptoms:

  • Muscle aches and pain
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Hot and cold sweats
  • Goosebumps
  • Poor energy
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Insomnia
  • A runny nose
  • Watering eyes
  • Yawning
  • Anxiety

The withdrawal begins about 4 to 12 hours after a person stops using opioids. It usually peaks at around 3 to 5 days, but symptoms may last up to a month. Less severe symptoms, including cravings, may persist for even longer.

When Withdrawal from Opioids Turns Deadly

Opioid withdrawal symptoms are clearly unpleasant, but few people know that opiate withdrawal can actually be deadly. This risk happens because opioids affect every organ system in your body. When the opioids are no longer available, your organs can have an unfavorable reaction, producing a sudden dysregulation. While a perfectly healthy person may go through withdrawal without severe consequences, many people with pre-existing medical conditions, known and unknown, can go through substantial health risk during an opioid withdrawal.

“So, what?” you may be thinking, “I’m a perfectly healthy person and will go through withdrawal just fine.” Actually, many people — even young people — have undiagnosed medical conditions that make opioid withdrawal dangerous. Furthermore, typical reactions like vomiting and diarrhea that accompany withdrawal can result in electrolyte imbalances, dehydration, and low potassium. When these imbalances are severe enough, it can place further stress on the kidneys, heart and other organ systems, potentially leading to organ failure and even death. Furthermore, chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease may predispose a person to complications during opioid withdrawal. Finally, going through withdrawal from multiple substances at once, such as opioids as well as benzodiazepines, may compound the effects of each.

It Can Turn Bad Quickly

Anyone who has worked with people suffering from opioid addiction knows how an unattended withdrawal can rapidly become a medical emergency. People of any age can experience serious medical complications or even death. That is why it is critical that we increase access to medically supervised detoxification and adequate recovery treatment. Having professional management through an opioid detox is the best way to ensure that withdrawal goes smoothly and safely. Also, a medical professional can prevent and treat most any complications in a timely and safe fashion. If you think about it, any other significant medical condition with potentially dangerous complications is handled in a hospital by medical professionals. Opioid detox should be no different.

Ways to Reduce Risk Associated with Withdrawal

There needs to be a nationwide public service announcement about the dangers of opioid withdrawal. Despite the thousands of people impacted by the opioid crisis, most people still believe that opioid withdrawal is harmless. Very few people are actually aware that an unattended opioid withdrawal can potentially be fatal.

People struggling with opioid use disorder, often choose to instantly quit, also referred to as quitting “cold turkey” at home. Many of these people end up going to the emergency department due to the severity of the withdrawal symptoms. For some, the pain with just overwhelming and they choose to go back using opioids in order to get immediate relief. Many people, after failing detox multiple times, simply resign to the endless cycle of addiction.

One of the most significant ways to avoid health risks associated with opioid withdrawal is not to go cold turkey at home or another unsupervised setting. All people struggling with opioid dependence will benefit from a supervised detox program. Leaving suffering people to undergo withdrawal on their own is not only dangerous, but it is also callous and inhumane.

A compassionate approach to opioid abuse treatment requires that we offer a higher level of services to these vulnerable people.

Medically Supervised Detox

Medically supervised detox begins with a comprehensive medical evaluation by a physician with expertise in addiction medicine. This includes testing for pre-existing medical conditions that could make the withdrawal process dangerous. The doctor will identify the physical, emotional, and psychological barriers to treatment response. An expert treatment team will then provide recommendations tailored to you as an individual. Rather than a “one size fits all” approach to addiction medicine, the best treatment programs offer an individualized approach.

Treatment for opioid dependence may include a medical detox protocol including opioid rapid detox. Medical detoxification protocols offer a safe, humane way for managing withdrawal symptoms in a medically supervised environment. If deemed medically appropriate, patients can use anesthesia-assisted detox to ease the discomfort of withdrawal.

Help with Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms

The Waismann Method® is one of the most successful opioid treatments available. A multi-board-certified MD offers detox protocols in a full-service accredited hospital. Additionally, a team of medical staff members provides around-the-clock care. This comprehensive level of care dramatically lowers the risk of medical complications or death during a withdrawal. If a medical concern or difficulty should occur, a team of doctors from various medical specialties is available for consultation or intervention. The Waismann staff is there to ensure that each person is safe and goes through opioid rapid detox with minimum discomfort.

The Importance of a Short-Term Inpatient Recovery Program

After successfully detoxing from opioids, patients continue to be in a physically and emotionally vulnerable position. Patient bodies continue to adjust to the loss of opioids in the days following detox, especially after rapid detox. This regulation phase may include gastrointestinal disturbances, insomnia, anxiety, and other uncomfortable symptoms. Although most of these issues are temporary and easily managed in a recovery center, they can become dangerous if not adequately cared for.
All the reasons above make a few days of inpatient recovery critical to the success and safety of the patient. People who receive an adequate professional and supportive recovery in the days following opioid rapid detox have a much better chance of succeeding.

An aftercare environment should provide physical and emotional support. Adjusting to an opioid-free lifestyle can be challenging for many people. This time also allows for people to delve into the root causes of addiction and learn new behaviors to maintain sobriety. But this healing process can only happen after managing the difficult period of opioid withdrawal in a safe environment.

We cannot overstate enough the possible risks of an opioid detox. Sadly, people who have been working in the addiction field for decades still ignore the dangers of a detox without proper medical care. We believe that people suffering from opioid use disorder should receive the same level of responsibility of any other patient with a medical condition. More importantly, health professionals should do whatever they can to reduce the tally of needless deaths from this tragic opioid epidemic.


Reviewed by Clare Waismann, CATC, Founder of WAISMANN METHOD® Advanced Treatment for Opiate Dependence