Dope Sick: What Is It & What Can Help

October 17, 2022

Table of Contents

When someone is going through withdrawal from opioids, you may hear it referred to as dope sick. While dope sickness is not life-threatening, it can be the trigger that causes people to continue using opioids, and can be a significant obstacle to recovery.

What Does ‘Dope Sick’ Mean?

Dope sick is slang for opioid withdrawal, which occurs after a person has become dependent on opioids and then stops taking them abruptly.

It is a significant obstacle on the path to addiction recovery. Opioid withdrawal isn’t usually life-threatening, although it can be extremely uncomfortable.

The best treatment option is generally Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) with Suboxone.

What Is Happening in the Body During Withdrawal?

When a person uses opioids, the opioids attach to specialized receptors in the brain called mu opioid receptors. Those receptors are turned on and produce analgesic and euphoric effects. Over time, the body becomes used to having these receptors permanently “on” because of the constant presence of opioids. When a person stops taking opioids suddenly, all of those receptors are turned off, causing a reverse reaction of withdrawal (or “dope sickness”), including headaches, chills, shakes, anxiety, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramping and pain. [1]

Signs & Symptoms of Being Dope Sick

The symptoms of opioid withdrawal can include the following:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle aches
  • Problems getting to sleep and staying asleep
  • Runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Tearing
  • Yawning
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Dilated pupils
  • Goosebumps
  • Nausea and vomiting

Opioid withdrawal is often described as “flu-like.” It is a self limited condition and is not life-threatening. However, it may be so uncomfortable or unpleasant that it needs medical treatment. This may involve detoxifying at a drug treatment facility, or, ideally, the use of medications to control symptoms and help prevent relapse. The most common outpatient medication for withdrawal is Suboxone. 

Medications for Dope Sickness

If you are dope sick, it’s a sign you need help. The good news is, there are several FDA approved medications to treat dope sickness.

Some individuals may choose to go through withdrawal without medications. Others may choose to use a few different medications that are called “adjunctive medications” that help with specific symptoms of opioid withdrawal. For example, baclofen for stomach cramping, Loperamide for diarrhea, or Clonidine for anxiety/shakiness.

However, by far the best and most effective treatment for withdrawal are MAT medications. There are two MAT medications that prevent opioid withdrawal symptoms - Methadone and Suboxone. 

If you’re not sure how to access Methadone or Suboxone treatment, a good first step is to use SAMHSA’s National Helpline or a similar resource to find out more about your options and the treatment resources in your area. The helpline, available at 1-800-662-4357, is a free, confidential resource provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. You can call it to get referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. You can also speak to your primary care doctor directly, or reach out to us at Bicycle health for more information about how to access Methadone or Suboxone therapy.

Medically Reviewed By Elena Hill, MD, MPH

Elena Hill, MD; MPH received her MD and Masters of Public Health degrees at Tufts Medical School and completed her family medicine residency at Boston Medical Center. She is currently an attending physician at Bronxcare Health Systems in the Bronx, NY where she works as a primary care physician as well as part time in pain management and integrated health. Her clinical interests include underserved health care, chronic pain and integrated/alternative health.

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Citations

  1. The Neurobiology of Opioid Dependence: Implications for Treatment. Science & Practice Perspectives. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2851054/. July 2002. Accessed September 2022.
  2. Opiate and opioid withdrawal. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000949.htm. May 2020. Accessed September 2022.
  3. Clinical Opiate Withdrawal Scale. National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://nida.nih.gov/sites/default/files/ClinicalOpiateWithdrawalScale.pdf. June 2003. Accessed September 2022.
  4. SAMHSA’s National Helpline. SAMHSA. https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline. Accessed September 2022.

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