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The Dangers Of Quitting Opiates Cold Turkey

Joseph Sitarik, DO

Medically reviewed by

Joseph Sitarik, DO

March 12, 2019

Quitting cold turkey refers to the goosebumps a person gets on their skin during opioid withdrawal when an individual suddenly stops all use of a drug. Quitting cold turkey can leave an individual with very severe and dangerous withdrawal symptoms. It is always best to consult a medical professional about how to properly taper off the use of opiates.

What Are Opioids?

The opioid drug class includes illicit drugs like heroin and prescription painkillers. Each drug within this class has potential for abuse, addiction, and overdose, some enormously so. These drugs work on your central nervous system in a manner which depresses your body’s ability to experience pain, hence the worth of some when used as prescription painkillers.

Examples of commonly abused prescription painkillers include:

  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl (may be prescription grade or illegally manufactured)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin)

Used properly, and under a physician’s guidance, opioid painkillers are generally safe when used for limited amounts of time. But unfortunately, when these drugs are misused, their therapeutic value is replaced by numerous dangers.

In addition to pain relief, opioids also produce varying degrees of euphoria, or a pleasurable effect. It’s for this reason that many individuals abuse these drugs. Choosing to alter the dosage (amount and frequency of use) of these drugs on your own (even for pain relief) qualifies as abuse. These behaviors can rapidly accelerate into addiction and also jeopardize a person’s life.

How Do Opioids Cause Addiction?

Opioid drugs are unique in the way they work in our body and brains. These locations contain receptor sites designed to receive opioid drugs. This is because our body actually creates its own opioids. Some you may be familiar with are endorphins, which are our body’s natural painkillers.

When a person begins to take an opioid drug over a prolonged period, their body becomes accustomed to the way the drug impacts its physiology. As this happens, your body’s naturally occurring opioid levels drastically decrease. At this time, your body becomes reliant on the medication or illicit substance to fulfill these duties. This is called dependency.

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It’s important to understand that even prescribed use of opioids can cause a dependence. This doesn’t mean that a person is addicted to the drug, however. When a person is addicted to opioids, they exhibit other features of addiction beyond dependence. Most notably these include patterns of drug seeking and using and continued use despite the intensely negative consequences to the user’s physical and mental health.

What Is Opioid Withdrawal?

According to MedlinePlus, even a few weeks of heavy opioid use can lead to withdrawal. Whether it be prescribed or illicit use, should an individual suddenly quit opioids cold turkey, withdrawal will be at its most severe. This occurs because your body is shocked by the absence of the drug and becomes unable to function properly without it. Withdrawal encompasses a set of very uncomfortable and even painful symptoms, such as:

  • Achy legs and muscles
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Dilated (enlarged) pupils
  • Diarrhea
  • Extreme cravings
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomachache
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Runny nose
  • Teary eyes
  • Yawning

While the withdrawal states associated with prescribed use aren’t typically as severe as those caused from illicit opioid abuse, it’s still imperative to taper your dosage. In most cases this may be done safely at home under your doctor’s recommendations. On the other hand, withdrawal associated with opioid addiction can become very severe and often requires more intensive treatment.

Is It Dangerous To Quit Cold Turkey?

Quitting cold turkey intensifies the symptoms and acute dangers of withdrawal. The nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea which hits users can lead to severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. If a person inhales their vomit into their lungs (aspiration), they could develop a severe lung infection (aspiration pneumonia). As explained by MedlinePlus, this could cause:

  • Lung abscesses
  • Respiratory failure
  • Shock
  • The infection to spread to the body and blood

Left untreated, these and other complications could endanger a person’s life.

Can You Die From Opioid Withdrawal?

While opioid withdrawal is in itself not deadly, certain complications and conditions which accompany it can be. Examples include:

  • If a person aspirates their vomit they could choke and die.
  • Untreated lung infections could become fatal.
  • Intense withdrawal symptoms are linked to suicide in some individuals.
  • Withdrawal often leads to relapse which increases a person’s risk of fatal overdose.

Why Is Relapsing Back To Opioids Dangerous?

One of the gravest risks during withdrawal is a relapse to drug use. To alleviate the discomfort of withdrawal, especially cravings, a person may return to drug use. This is exceedingly dangerous on many levels.

At the time, this may seem like a quick fix, but in truth it’s far from it. Any return to opioid abuse places a person square back into the cross-hairs of addiction and its many dangers. Opioid abuse and addiction leads to numerous, serious adverse health effects, some of which are deadly. Relapsing back to opioids shortly after detox can be fatal, due to a person’s reduced tolerance for the opioid drug of abuse. Without the support of a treatment program, this risk runs high.

How Is Opioid Withdrawal Treated?

Due to the extreme potency of opioids and their potential for physical dependency, the majority of opioid addictions are best supported by a medical detox. The primary aim of a medical detox is to alleviate or reduce the unbearable and dangerous symptoms of withdrawal while the body cleanses itself from the drug.

During this time a person will be constantly monitored at every hour of the day by a compassionate and highly-trained staff. A variety of pharmacotherapies (medications) may be used to meet these goals, including:

  • Buprenorphine (Bunavail, Suboxone, Subutex, Zubsolv)
  • Clonidine
  • Methadone

Other medications may be used to treat certain symptoms of withdrawal, such as anxiety, gastrointestinal distress, or insomnia. Naltrexone may be used after detox to prevent relapse. Emotional and nutritional support (including IV fluid hydration) may also be utilized at this time, as needed.

Detox is only the first step. Individuals who decline treatment after detoxing have significantly lower chances of successfully obtaining sobriety, to the extent that the National Institute on Drug Abuse asserts that “Medically assisted detoxification is only the first stage of addiction treatment and by itself does little to change long-term drug abuse.”

Opioid addiction is exceedingly difficult to treat on one’s own. Fortunately, thousands of treatment facilities exist across our nation which can make this journey easier to bear. Depending on the severity of the addiction and a person’s unique health and medical needs, treatment plans will vary. For instance, if a person has a co-occurring mental health disorder like depression or ADHD, medications and support may be targeted to treat these concerns as well.

Make The Right Choice Today

Opioid withdrawal is best dealt with under the supervision of a highly-trained medical detox. can offer you more information on opioid detoxes and treatment programs. Contact us now for a confidential assessment.

MedlinePlus - Opioid Abuse and Addiction

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