Withdrawal | 4 min read

Yes, People Can Die from Opiate Withdrawal

Medically Reviewed

Medically Reviewed By

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu

On September 4, 2022

Written By

Amanda Stevens

Amanda Stevens, B.S.

On February 5, 2019

opiate withdrawal
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Opiate withdrawal can be more than unpleasant. It can be deadly. While not entirely common, withdrawal symptoms can be so severe that the former user dies from associated complications. In addition, failing to receive proper medical care during physical withdrawal can be fatal, and there is currently a surprising lack of research and information on this risk. The National Institute of Health has recently launched a campaign calling for more research into the opiate epidemic and has included an interest area of increasing focus on treating withdrawal symptoms from opioids.

Annual statistics reveal that 1.6 million people in the United States were addicted to opiates in 2019. The problem has become so widespread that it has been declared a national emergency. With increased awareness of the addictive nature of opioids, we can expect that more of those struggling with opioid dependence will begin to seek alternatives to their addictions. This expectation necessitates that proper attention is given to the experience – and the risks – that are associated with opiate withdrawal.

Withdrawal Leading to Death

Symptoms of opiate withdrawal typically begin within 24 hours of the last dosage. The discomfort can resemble the flu, with nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, and muscle aches. Insomnia may accompany these symptoms, along with a feeling of agitation and the experience of a rapid heartbeat. These symptoms can be acute, resulting in the body’s failure to regain homeostasis. In worst-case scenarios, failure to address the symptoms can result in death.

The flu-like symptoms can result in morbidity due to dehydration, improper levels of sodium in the blood, and heart failure. Left untreated and unmonitored, the recovering addict can die for their recovery. This danger is particularly present when the opiate user is forced to quit the drug without intervention or assistance, such as during incarceration or hospitalization for other health issues.

The Process of Opiate Withdrawal

The most obvious and devastating way opiate withdrawal affects the body lies in studies of newborns born to addicted mothers. Shortly after birth, the infants can exhibit all of the above symptoms of withdrawal, along with experiencing seizures, poor feeding habits, and tremors. Babies suffering from withdrawal commonly need to be treated with intravenous medications. They can take several days to recover, even with the help of such treatments, and exhibit signs of being in severe discomfort for the duration.

When detoxing from opiates, both the brain and the body are affected. The high from opiate use is produced through the chemical bonding with certain receptors in the brain. These receptors tell the brain to release hormones that produce a feeling of ease and happiness. However, when the drug supply is removed, the user finds that the brain’s natural ability to produce these hormones has atrophied. The result of this lack of natural dopamine production is that the former user can experience anxiety, depression, and insomnia.

The brain is part of the central nervous system. This system controls involuntary actions, such as the ability to breathe, maintain proper body temperature, and maintain a steady heart rate. Similar to what occurs in the brain, opioid receptors along the spinal region of the central nervous system become dependent upon the effects of the drug, and ceasing usage of the drug can result in the body not remembering how to self-regulate. The physical withdrawal symptoms of rapid heart rate, diarrhea, and nausea are related to the confusion of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system after losing the directing influence of the drug.

Relapse Due to Withdrawal Symptoms

A secondary and more common cause of death related to opiate withdrawal is the user’s tendency to revisit the substance to alleviate these uncomfortable symptoms. Those who start using opiates after abstinence are more likely to consume too much of the drug, resulting in an overdose. As the body begins to adjust to functioning without opiates, tolerance levels for the drug steadily decrease. This means that reintroducing a level of the drug that is similar to that which was used previously can overwhelm the bodily system, resulting in overdose.

The symptoms of opioid overdose affect the same systems and produce symptoms complementary to those present during withdrawal. Breathing problems, irregular hearbeat, and changes in body temperature are all symptoms present during an overdose. These similar symptoms result from the drug’s effect on the central nervous system. In the case of overdose, the system is overly affected by the presence of opioids. In the case of withdrawal, the system is reacting to not being able to rely on chemical directives from the drug.

The Need for Intervention

It is nearly impossible to predict who will react severely to opiate withdrawal. While some only experience mild symptoms, others can require hospitalization to receive intravenous fluids, breathing assistance, and mitigating medications. Patients with withdrawal symptoms also often experience psychological conditions, such as severe anxiety and panic attacks. These psychological factors can compound physical distress, resulting in a higher risk of breathing difficulties and heart failure.

The dangers associated with opiate withdrawal cause concern for those attempting – or forced through circumstance – to kick the habit on their own. Qualified detox treatment centers are available to help the recovering addict to transition more gently into a drug-free lifestyle, and hospitals are encouraged to assess the risk of opiate withdrawal for admitted patients. Specialized medications can reduce the unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal, and therapeutic support can provide the psychological tools necessary to sustain recovery. In addition, treatment providers are equipped with withdrawal severity assessment tools and can customize the treatment according to individual needs.

If you or a loved one are seeking a New York or New Jersey alcohol detox center, reach out to Ascendant today. Our medical detox process is safe and effective and will help you regain control of your life. We also offer intensive outpatient treatment for drug addiction and alcohol addiction.

Was this article helpful? Follow our blog for more information about addiction, substance use, and how to get help. Recent posts include topics such as the difference between substance abuse and addiction, what you should know about 12-Step programs, and overcoming alcohol addiction. 

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Amanda Stevens


Amanda Stevens, B.S.

Amanda is a prolific medical content writer specializing in eating disorders and addiction treatment. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Purdue University with a B.S. in Social Work. Read more

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