Many people addicted to opiate drugs would rather undergo a home detox, where they can experience painkiller withdrawal in the privacy and comfort of their own home. This is understandable, but before you move forward, it is crucial that you become fully aware of what to expect from an opiate detox at home, and the potential risks and benefits.
7 Things to Expect During At-Home Opiate Detox
The opiate withdrawal symptoms you’ll experience during your home detox will begin between six and 24 hours since your last dose, increasing and gradually worsening, until they peak at about 72 hours into your painkiller withdrawal. Then the symptoms will begin to improve, with most of them fading away entirely after a week. Keep in mind, though, this is a general timeline. The actual withdrawal experience will vary depending on your individual body chemistry, how long you’ve been using, how much you’ve been using, and how well you are able to care for yourself during your home detox.
1. Upset stomach
Opiate drugs mess with your digestion when you are actively using, usually by inducing constipation and nausea, and they will also mess with your digestion during an opiate detox at home. Nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea are common painkiller withdrawal symptoms, making detox feel a lot like a bad case of food poisoning. Not only are these symptoms themselves unpleasant, the resulting dehydration and lack of nutrition can cause additional symptoms, such as lightheadedness, brain fog, fatigue, and weakness. Dehydration is a particularly dangerous withdrawal complication that will be discussed in depth later.
2. Anxiety and depression
Many people start using opiates to self-medicate feelings of anxiety and depression, and not only will detoxing from opiates cause these feelings to return, painkiller withdrawal will produce these feelings in individuals who did not previously experience anxiety or depression.
Opiates induce addiction by manipulating dopamine levels in the brain’s reward system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with movement, pleasure, motivation, and satisfaction, and when the brain is flooded with unnatural levels of drug-induced dopamine, the result is a rush of euphoria. After your brain adapts to these unnatural dopamine floods by reducing the amount of dopamine produced and shutting off some of your brain’s dopamine receptors, this rush of euphoria will become much harder to experience, even at higher doses of opiates. Furthermore, the adaptation will make it difficult for you to feel pleasure in anything without the help of drugs. Eventually, you require opiates to simply keep from feeling depressed, anxious, and generally low.
Although your brain’s neurotransmitter and reward systems can be repaired, it will take weeks, months, or possibly years, depending on the severity of your addiction. Meanwhile, you will have to cope with depression, anxiety, and difficulty enjoying things, all of which will be at their worst during the first few days to a week of your opiate detox at home.
3. Intense cravings
Your brain has trained you to prioritize opiate drug use as if it is an important survival activity. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that when you attempt to give up opiates in an at home detox, you will experience intense drug cravings. These cravings drive you to keep using during active addiction, and they will make you vulnerable to relapse during and after an opiate detox at home. Relapsing after a period of abstinence is particularly dangerous, because your instincts will tell you to use at your accustomed dose, but your physical tolerance will be greatly reduced after detox. This makes you extremely vulnerable to overdose.
Fever is very common during painkiller withdrawal, and can be accompanied by shivering, sweating, weakness, muscle aches, loss of appetite, dehydration, and headache. If your fever climbs high enough, you may also experience hallucinations, confusion, or seizures. Because chronic drug use can make you more vulnerable to infection to begin with, don’t automatically assume that a fever is just a withdrawal symptom. Keep track of your temperature, and take acetaminophen or ibuprofen if it rises over 101.3 F. A lukewarm bath or sponge bath can help lower your temperature, but don’t take a cold shower or dunk yourself in ice water, since this will only encourage shivering, which can increase your temperature. Drink plenty of water, and eat clear soup and popsicles to stay hydrated and get some much-needed calories in your body.
Seek medical help right away if:
- Your fever continues for more than 24 hours.
- Your fever goes over 103 F and doesn’t lower within an hour of taking medicine and/or using home remedies.
- You have a serious illness in addition to addiction, such as diabetes, HIV, cardiovascular diseases, sickle cell anemia, or cystic fibrosis.
- You have a seizure.
5. Rapid heartbeat
During an opiate detox at home, you should expect a racing heart rate, as your depressed central nervous system kicks into overdrive in response to painkiller withdrawal. You could also experience irregular heartbeat, or other cardiac complications, such as
stress cardiomyopathy, a rapid weakening of the heart muscles that can lead to heart failure. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience shortness of breath, dizziness, and chest pain during your home detox. Don’t hesitate to act. Other symptoms of heart attack, such as sweating, weakness, nausea and vomiting, and palpitations, are also symptoms of painkiller withdrawal, and you don’t want to overlook a more serious issue because you assume the way you feel is just another part of your at home opiate detox.
Feeling irritable is pretty much unavoidable during opiate detoxification. Not only is your brain suffering from depleted dopamine levels, you feel physically ill and exhausted, you probably aren’t getting enough quality nutrition (or aren’t able to keep it down), and you are intensely craving opiate drugs, which you know are the last thing that you should have right now. The combination of physical and emotional symptoms combined with overall frustration is a recipe for irritability and even anger. The good news is that knowing in advance that you’re going to feel this way can help you accept it and deal with it more effectively. It can also comfort any loved ones who are attempting to help you during this time to know that your sharp tone or sudden bad attitude is a natural part of your home detox, and the negativity will slowly pass if you both stay patient.
Difficulty sleeping is a common withdrawal symptom during almost all kinds of drug and alcohol detox. For some, insomnia will pass in a week or two, while many others will struggle to sleep normally for months after painkiller withdrawal. Start adopting good “sleep hygiene” habits as soon as possible to get yourself on a regular sleeping schedule. These kinds of habits include:
- Avoid screens right before bed (the blue-light of your phone or the television will keep your brain awake)
- Avoid sleep medications, as they will only disrupt your body’s healing process. If your sleep deprivation gets severe, take a very, very low dose of melatonin for no more than a few nights in a row
- Turn down the lights and engage in quiet, calm activities in the evening, to get your body ready to rest
- Don’t drink caffeine after noon—even if you no longer feel alert, having caffeine in your system can still keep you from falling asleep
- Don’t stress about waking up in the middle of the night. Take the time to quietly think, read a book, or write in your journal, and return to sleep when you can
- Allow yourself to sleep as much as you want during detox, but after a while, start waking up at the same time every day and going to sleep as soon as you are tired. Eventually your body will get on a regular sleep pattern that follows how much rest you really need.
Major Risks of Detoxing Alone
An opiate detox at home can be very risky, and you need to be aware of the dangers. You also need to be wary of any products that promise to help you through a home detox. In January 2018, the FDA sent a number of manufacturers warnings about illegal claims made on at home opiate detox kits. Most of these companies have complied with this warning by now, but new companies may try to cash in on the market for these fake products, or old ones may find ways to make claims indirectly so that they mislead consumers without breaking laws. Just remember that these opioid detox kits have not been shown to be effective, and that the lack of FDA approval or monitoring means that some of them may even be unsafe.
Dehydration is a major risk of undertaking an opiate detox at home, and adequate hydration is necessary for normal bodily functioning. Dehydration reduces blood volume and constricts blood vessels, which can exacerbate other cardiac symptoms that often occur during painkiller withdrawal. Dehydration also leads to electrolyte imbalances which can cause your heart and brain to malfunction, and urine retention which leads to kidney damage, and eventually, kidney failure. Basically, your body needs water to do absolutely everything that it’s supposed to do to keep you alive, so if it doesn’t get enough water, all bodily systems are at risk of malfunctioning and causing organ damage.
Do your best to keep hydrated at home, and don’t hesitate to seek medical help if you aren’t able to retain fluids and/or you notice signs of dehydration such as dry mouth, dark urine, lightheadedness, or muscle cramps. A doctor can give you fluids and electrolytes through an IV and rehydrate you faster and more effectively than you could at home.
Relapse is a major danger of detoxing from opiates at home. Without the structure and security of a treatment facility to physically keep you from using again, it will be far too easy for you to give into drug cravings. The fact that you could probably relieve your misery by making one quick phone call creates a powerful level of temptation that is too much for most people to resist. Furthermore, studies have shown that your brain is likely to associate the negative symptoms of painkiller withdrawal with the environment in which you experienced those symptoms. This means that your home could trigger withdrawal associations in you at any time, creating cravings, and potential drug seeking and relapse, even after weeks or months of abstinence.
Benefits of an Opiate Detox at Home
- Being with Loved Ones: A home detox allows you to be around the people you love when you need them most. This is probably more appealing to you than the thought of detoxing at a treatment facility with strangers. However, it’s important to remember that a hospital or rehab facility has the resources to guide you safely through the experience, while your friends and family may be in over their heads.
- Saving Money: A home detox is free, and while a free detox at a treatment facility is possible, not everyone qualifies. So yes, an opiate detox at home will save you money, but consider how much more vulnerable you are to relapsing by detoxing at home. Returning to drugs will create all kinds of financial problems that could be avoided if you received effective treatment and stayed drug free.
Benefits of Attending Opiate Detox Treatment
A professional opiate detox gives you a much better chance of success, and is therefore more cost-effective in the long run. Detoxing with professional help will keep you more comfortable, and will allow you to begin your recovery from a place of greater strength. It will also protect you from withdrawal complications that could endanger your health and your life.
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