Yes, it’s possible to die from opioid withdrawal, though it’s quite rare.
Opioid withdrawal is often described as flu-like. In television shows and movies, people struggling with withdrawal feel sick for a day or two but bounce right back.
While some people have withdrawal episodes that resemble those in the movies, the reality can be very different.
Researchers say people do die during opioid withdrawal. Often, these problems happen during incarceration.
No organizations track how many people die due to opioid withdrawal in jail, but reporters uncovered 20 lawsuits filed between 2014 and 2016 springing from opioid withdrawal symptoms.
Anyone can die from opioid withdrawal, whether you’re in prison or at home. But treatment can help you to recover.
Symptoms of Opioid Withdrawal
Experts classify opioid withdrawal as a life-threatening condition caused by opioid dependence. When you’ve used opioids and become accustomed to them, you can develop withdrawal symptoms hours after your last dose.
Early opioid withdrawal symptoms include the following:
- Aching muscles
- Runny nose
Without treatment, opioid withdrawal symptoms can worsen. In later stages, you can develop the following symptoms:
Late-stage opioid withdrawal symptoms can last for days. They can also be relentless, so they don’t ebb and flow like normal flu symptoms.
Which Withdrawal Symptoms Are the Most Dangerous?
Opioid withdrawal symptoms like aching muscles and goosebumps can be uncomfortable. But problems like vomiting and diarrhea are much more serious.
People experiencing significant vomiting can’t take in food or water. Each mouthful you take will come right back out during the next vomiting episode.
Diarrhea can also be problematic, as any food or water people manage to ingest moves back out of the body again.
Experts say persistent vomiting and diarrhea, if left untreated, will result in life-threatening medical conditions. Anyone experiencing relentless diarrhea and vomiting should get help immediately.
How Can Opioid Withdrawal Cause Death?
People with underlying health conditions, such as coronary artery disease or liver failure, are at higher risk of death from opioid withdrawal. But even healthy people can die during the opioid withdrawal process.
The following three medical conditions are responsible for most of these deaths:
Your body needs fluids to maintain proper organ function. Everything from your heart to your lungs to your kidneys needs plenty of fluid. If you experience multiple episodes of diarrhea and vomiting, you may have too little fluids to keep your body working properly.
People can become dehydrated due to other factors, such as sun exposure or kidney failure. But vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration very quickly.
Doctors consider severe dehydration a life-threatening emergency. They can use needles to add fluids to patients, even if they’re vomiting. With this kind of treatment, people can recover.
High Blood Sodium
Sodium is an electrolyte that supports electrical signaling from cell to cell. If you’re dehydrated, your body may not have enough fluid to carry sodium from place to place or out of your body. Your sodium levels can rise, leading to very severe neurological problems.
Doctors use fluids to correct these sorts of imbalances. They can provide those fluids via a needle, so they’re not apt to leave your body again through the next vomiting episode. Fluids that go right into your bloodstream are working at the source, correcting sodium imbalances.
The heart relies on both fluids and sodium. Without the right balance, the heart can begin to beat erratically. Sometimes, it stops beating altogether.
Heart failure is a medical emergency that can lead to death in minutes. Rehydration can correct imbalances, but some people have heart muscle damage that requires close monitoring and medications.
Deaths From Opioid Overdose Are Preventable
While opioid withdrawal can cause death, proper treatment can make a huge difference. Every severe consequence of withdrawal can be treated by medical professionals in hospitals and clinics.
Doctors say less than 1% of people in withdrawal in jail get detoxification and treatment. Experts know this number is too low and are working to ensure more people get the treatment they need.
But if you’re not in jail, you have the choice to get help when you need it. Visit an emergency room when mild withdrawal signs begin, and tell the medical team that you’re moving through withdrawal.
Doctors can use medications like buprenorphine to ease withdrawal symptoms. With this therapy, severe symptoms may never start. If buprenorphine is combined with naloxone, as it is in the medication Suboxone, you’ll be much less likely to relapse.
If you didn’t get help with withdrawal and you develop severe dehydration and diarrhea, go to an emergency room immediately. Medications, fluid therapy and close observation could help to save your life. Do this quickly because minutes matter in this situation.
After you recover from opioid withdrawal, you need treatment for opioid use disorder. Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) programs combine medication and therapy to correct chemical imbalances and help you live a sober life.
In a program like this, you’ll identify issues that led you to misuse opioids, and you’ll develop a plan to deal with relapse triggers. You’ll build a support network that promotes your recovery, and you’ll get on a path to a better future.
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD
Peter Manza, PhD received his BA in Psychology and Biology from the University of Rochester and his PhD in Integrative Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. He is currently working as a research scientist in Washington, DC. His research focuses on the role ... Read More
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