Opiate dependence is characterized by withdrawal symptoms that set in when you suddenly stop using opioids. The opiate withdrawal timeline depends on several factors, but one thing is certain: opiate withdrawal can be excruciating, and medical detox is essential for comfort and safety during the withdrawal process.

The Opiate Withdrawal Timeline

Depending on the type of opiate abused, including heroin, short-acting prescription opiates, or long-acting prescription opiates, the opiate withdrawal timeline typically starts between eight and 30 hours after the last dose and lasts between four and 10 days. For some people, the opiate withdrawal timeline will be shorter, while for others, it can last as long as a month or more.

The opiate withdrawal timeline depends on factors such as:

  • The amount of opiates in your system at the time of detox.
  • The length and severity of the dependence.
  • The general state of physical and mental health.
  • Genetics and biology.
  • Whether you opt for medical detox or withdraw on your own.

While opiate withdrawal isn’t particularly dangerous, it can be very intense. Common withdrawal symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, body aches, chills and anxiety.

How Medical Detox Shortens the Opiate Withdrawal Timeline

Medical detox is medically supervised withdrawal. It involves a variety of medications that are administered as needed to reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms and shorten the time it takes to detox.

Buprenorphine is one of a few medications commonly used during opiate detox. Buprenorphine is a semi-synthetic opiate, and a partial opioid agonist, which means that while it can produce the euphoric and respiratory depressing effects of opiates, the effects are far smaller than full agonists like heroin and opioid painkillers. Buprenorphine attaches to opioid receptors to reduce the intensity of opiate withdrawal, help normalize brain function and shorten the opiate withdrawal timeline.

Other medications used during opiate detox can treat symptoms like nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea and feelings of agitation and anxiety. Cravings are intense during withdrawal, and while some medications can reduce their severity during withdrawal, cravings can last for weeks or months after detox and can make long-term recovery difficult.

Why Medical Detox is Essential for Opiate Withdrawal

Many people who try to detox from opiates on their own turn back to using very quickly, if only to end the discomfort of withdrawal. People in severe withdrawal can quickly become dangerously dehydrated as a result of severe vomiting and diarrhea.

In addition to reducing the severity of withdrawal symptoms and shortening the opiate withdrawal timeline, medical detox provides emotional support during withdrawal. High quality detox programs typically offer complementary therapies like acupuncture, massage or restorative yoga to help reduce stress, ease withdrawal symptoms and promote a higher sense of well-being during withdrawal.

Medication-Assisted Treatment: An Alternative to Detox

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, is the current gold standard for treating opiate dependence and addiction. Medication-assisted treatment involves medications that prevent withdrawal while helping to normalize brain function and block cravings for opiates. These medications enable individuals to focus on addressing the issues behind the addiction and can be taken for weeks, months or even years to effectively manage the addiction and help prevent relapse.

Medication is just one component of MAT. The other component is counseling, which is central to ending an addiction to opiates. The combination of medication and therapy helps addicted individuals address a variety of issues behind the addiction and develop essential coping skills for handling relapse triggers.

Detox is Not Addiction Treatment

If you choose to detox from opiates rather than opt for medication-assisted treatment, it’s important to understand that detox is not addiction treatment and does very little to address the critical issues behind the compulsive drug abuse. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Principles of Effective Treatment, addiction is far more complex than physical dependence. It requires comprehensive treatment that involves a variety of therapies to help people end their addiction for the long-term, restore function to their lives and find purpose and meaning in a life free of substance abuse.