Why Does Withdrawal from Opiates Make You Sick?

Why Does Withdrawal from Opiates Make You Sick?

When opiate addicts stop using, they usually feel sick as the body adjusts to drug-related changes

When people who are addicted to opiates stop using, they usually feel sick. This happens because the body is adjusting to life without drugs. Whether its naturally derived opiates – like illicit heroin and rarely prescribed morphine – or synthetic opiates – like hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin), oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin and Percocet) – these powerful painkilling and euphoria producing alter the brain’s natural reward system. Regardless of the original intent for using opiates, excessive use can lead to a physical dependence. It’s the body’s developed tolerance of opiates and its demand for more that causes that sick feeling when opiate use is stopped – even significantly reduced.1

What Happens in the Body When Opiate Use Stops?

When a person who has become dependent on opiates stops using, the body is thrown into turmoil. It tries to restore natural physiological functions. Opiate cravings and withdrawal symptoms are experienced. The brain’s reward memories motivate the person to return to opiates in order to “feel right” (i.e., what it has become conditioned or accustomed to as a result of opiate’s interference in the body’s natural mode of operation). The physical and emotional discomforts are related to the functions that the body’s nerve receptors help regulate.1

What Symptoms May Occur During Withdrawal?

As the body fights to return to the “old normal,” it may – in the early stages of withdrawal – exhibit any or all of these symptoms:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle aches
  • Increased tearing
  • Insomnia
  • Runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Yawning

Later symptoms of withdrawal may include:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Dilated pupils
  • Goose bumps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
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Until the body is detoxified and its natural physiological functions are restored, these symptoms can be very uncomfortable, but it’s uncommon for it to be life-threatening.

It is possible, however, for physical complications to develop in certain circumstances, including:

  • Vomiting and breathing in stomach contents into the lungs. This is called aspiration, and it can cause lung infection.
  • Vomiting and diarrhea can cause dehydration and body chemical and mineral (electrolyte) disturbances.
  • The biggest complication is returning to drug use. Most opiate overdose deaths occur in people who have just detoxed. Since withdrawal reduces the person’s tolerance to the drug, so those who have just gone through withdrawal can overdose on a much smaller dose than they used to take.2

How Can I Best Deal with Opiate Withdrawal Symptoms?

With withdrawal symptoms beginning as soon as 12 hours after the last dose and typically persisting for at least a week, enduring the discomfort without relapse is a painful but necessary first step to recovery. Detoxification (or detox) and drug rehabilitation (or rehab) treatment are the most common and effective way to promote a positive outcome.

Most rehab treatment centers offer several detoxification services and options, which potentially include the following:

  • Supervised (or “medically managed”) detox in a safe and comfortable environment.
  • Gradual dosage reductions to wean the patient off opiates.
  • Medication to help with anxiety, agitation, cramping and other symptoms.
  • Opiate replacement drugs, like buprenorphine (Subutex) or methadone.

Treatment professionals determine the detox services in consultation with their patients. Nevertheless, these services should be viewed as a prelude to addiction treatment – not the treatment itself. Recovery therapies are usually necessary to prevent a rapid relapse. Therapies, like every other part of the program, should depend upon the specific needs of the patient.

Several therapeutic treatment options are possible, including:

  • Integrated mental health care for co-occurring disorders.
  • Behavioral therapies that address negative thought patterns.
  • Strategies to avoid or neutralize opiate craving triggers.
  • Counseling for family issues, life skills, stress and trauma.
  • Holistic options for patients requiring pain management.

Recovering opiate addicts should also engage in aftercare counseling and local support groups following their primary addiction treatment (i.e., release from their formal, highly regulated treatment program).3

Seek Highly Qualified Help for Your Opiate Addiction

If opiates have a hold on you or a loved one, help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When you call our toll-free line, a friendly and knowledgeable admissions coordinator will address your questions and concerns, as well as offer a variety of treatment options. We can even assist you in determining if your health insurance plan will cover this crucial treatment. We would be honored to help you. Trust a recognized leader, according to more than ten independent nationwide drug treatment program studies.


1 “Prescription Drug Abuse”, National Institute on Drug Abuse, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-drugs/opioids/how-do-opioids-affect-brain-body , (November 2014).

2 “Opiate and Opioid Withdrawal”, MedLinePlus, U. S. National Library of Medicine, https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000949.htm , (May 3, 2016).

3 “Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition)”, National Institute on Drug Abuse, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/drug-addiction-treatment-in-united-states/types-treatment-programs , (December 2012).