Is It Dangerous To Detox From Opiates Cold Turkey?

Yes, it can be dangerous to detox from opiates cold turkey. Without the assistance of a medically-supervised detoxification program, an individual is exposed to numerous risks during withdrawal from heroin or prescription opioid painkillers. These include adverse physical and mental health effects, relapse and a reduced opportunity for a successful drug-free life.

When a person quits an opiate slowly, without reducing their dosage (tapering), and without the appropriate supportive treatments, this is called a cold turkey. Opiate drugs can form intense physical dependencies, quickly. When this happens, a person will likely experience symptoms of withdrawal which often accelerate to painful and debilitating extremes if not treated properly. Effective treatment of opioid withdrawal most commonly includes medications that reduce or alleviate the symptoms of withdrawal.

What Are Opiates?

Opiates include those drugs derived directly from the opioid poppy, while the term opioid is more commonly used to include these and synthetically produced drugs that mimic the effects these substances produce. The opioid drug class includes opiates like heroin and a variety of highly-addictive prescription painkillers.

Every drug within this class has the potential to be abused in a manner that leads to addiction, overdose, and withdrawal, some more so than others.

Opioid painkillers are responsible for countless addictions; these drugs include:

  • codeine
  • fentanyl (Actiq, Duragesic, and Sublimaze)
  • hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab, and Lorcet)
  • hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • meperidine (Demerol)
  • methadone (Dolophine and Methadose)
  • morphine (Duramorph)
  • oxycodone (OxyContin, Percodan, and Percocet)
  • oxymorphone (Opana)

Opioids create their effects due to the way they work on your central nervous system (CNS), an impact that produces the pain-relieving and euphoric effects opioid is known for. The effects on the CNS system are also what produce withdrawal, should the drug suddenly become absent, or the dosage drastically reduced.

When a person takes an opioid on a regular basis, either through prescribed or illicit use, their body may become reliant on it to function. This is called physical dependence. A dependency from prescribed use does not mean a person is addicted, however, it may mean that they encounter symptoms of withdrawal should they quit cold turkey.

When a dependency is accompanied by patterns of drug-seeking and using, intense cravings, and drug-induced adverse health effects, among other things, the dependency is part of an addicted state.

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What Is Opioid Withdrawal?

Once a person’s body has become physically dependent on a drug there’s a good chance their body will react harshly to the drug’s absence, often in painful and uncomfortable ways.

Symptoms of opioid withdrawal can become intense and debilitating without the proper, specialized treatment. Withdrawal can cause a person to have goosebumps, hence the name “cold turkey.” In addition to this it may also include:

  • abdominal cramping
  • agitation
  • anxiety
  • dilated (enlarged) pupils
  • diarrhea
  • insomnia
  • intense cravings
  • muscle aches and pains
  • nausea and vomiting
  • sweating
  • restless leg syndrome
  • runny nose
  • teary eyes
  • yawning

In many cases, withdrawal associated with prescribed use isn’t as severe as that which accompanies addiction. Despite this, even those who are physically dependent on prescribed use should still judiciously taper their dosage as per doctor’s orders.

For those who are addicted to heroin or prescription opioid painkillers, withdrawal should never be undergone without medical assistance. Attempting to do so can jeopardize a person’s safety, their pursuit of sobriety, and in certain cases, their life.

The Dangers Of Quitting Opioids Cold Turkey

Quitting heroin or prescription painkillers can increase both the severity and danger of withdrawal symptoms.

Severe gastrointestinal distress, marked by diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, can cause extreme dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. Our body requires fluids and electrolytes to function properly; without this, certain important systems within our body can begin to malfunction.

Another danger of withdrawal-induced vomiting is lung complications. Should a person vomit then inhale the vomit into their lungs (aspiration) they could develop aspiration pneumonia, a severe infection of the lungs.

According to MedlinePlus, this condition could cause:

  • abscesses within the lungs
  • respiratory failure
  • shock

If not promptly treated, this infection could spread to a person’s blood and travel throughout the body causing even more dangers. In certain cases, this infection, and those complications which follow could become so severe that they become life-threatening.

Can Opioid Withdrawal Cause Death?

Even though the direct symptoms of withdrawal are not in themselves life-threatening, certain situations that result from them may very well be.

If a person aspirates their vomit there’s another way they could die: if a person breathes in their vomit and chokes they could suffocate.

Withdrawal symptoms can become very intense, to the point that some individuals contemplate, and even attempt suicide.

Beyond these dangers, should a person relapse back to drug abuse as a way to curb withdrawal-associated cravings, they’re putting their life in jeopardy every day. Overdose from opioids is a very real threat, even for individuals who have used chronically for extended periods of time.

Once a person returns to heroin or prescription opioid painkillers, they’re subjecting their body and brain to a dangerous drug that has the potential to cause illness and death in other ways.

The Risks And Dangers Of Continued Opioid Abuse

Even though these risks don’t happen directly because of withdrawal symptoms, it’s important to understand them. Should a person relapse during unsupervised withdrawal these are dangers continued drug abuse may expose an individual to down the road.

Opioid use disorders can destroy a person’s quality of life, leaving negative impacts on a person’s family life, career, finances, and educational pursuits. One of the ways this damage is experienced most intensely is within a person’s physical and mental health.

Opioid abuse and addiction may lead to:

  • brain damage and cognitive deficits
  • criminal activity
  • damage and disease to your organs (lungs, heart, kidneys, and liver)
  • hormonal and sexual dysfunction
  • miscarriage
  • mood disorders like depression
  • seizures
  • sleep problems
  • transmissible diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C
  • unsafe sex and unwanted pregnancies

Detoxifying in a safe, supportive environment, such as that provided by a medically-supervised detoxification program, is the first step towards protecting a person from these and other risks of opioid drug abuse.

Finding A Treatment Program That Treats Opioid Withdrawal

Treatment for opioid addictions quite often entails two parts: medically-supervised detoxification and rehabilitation.

While you can pursue these treatments separately, choosing a program that offers both on-site allows for a more seamless transition, and in turn, the opportunity for a more successful recovery.

These services can often be found within inpatient rehabilitation programs. In choosing a program that is formatted this way, an individual is afforded the opportunity to move directly from detoxification to treatment for psychological addiction.

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