Opioid withdrawal


  • Opioid withdrawal can be precipitated with administration of antagonist (e.g. naloxone) or partial agonist (e.g. buprenorphine) [1] or as a result of cessation of use
  • Symptoms are usually uncomfortable but not life-threatening and manifest with agitation and restlessness but does not cause altered mental status
  • Symptoms may resemble that of Influenza [2]
    • Catecholamine surge during withdrawal may cause a level of hemodynamic instability that may not be tolerated by patients with co-morbid conditions
    • Withdrawal can be life-threatening in neonates

Adult Opioid Withdrawal

  • Heroin: onset 6-12 hours, peak 36-72 hours, duration 7-10 days
  • Methadone: onset 30 hours, peak 72-96 hours, duration 14 days or more
  • If symptoms are from naloxone-induced withdrawal, typically the duration of symptoms are generally < 1 hour but can be severe

Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal

Clinical Presentation

Time to peak and duration of symptoms depends on the half-life of the drug involved

Early symptoms

  • Agitation/restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle aches
  • Increased tearing
  • Insomnia
  • Runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Yawning
  • Skin-Crawling
  • May be tachycardic and/or tachypneic but not necessarily

Late symptoms

  • Unlike alcohol or benzodiazepine withdrawal, patients rarely have seizures
  • Altered mental status is also not part of opiod withdrawal signs

Differential Diagnosis

Differential is largely based on clinical symptoms and history

Sedative/hypnotic withdrawal



Treatment is largely supportive without the need for any pharmacologic intervention in the ED unless there is serious hemodynamic abnormalities

Supportive Care

  • PO/IV hydration
  • Electrolyte repletion

Opioid replacement

  • Opioid administration such as morphine can be given as needed for symptom control


  • A central alpha 2 agonist that does suppress the sympathetic hyperactivity that results during acute withdrawal
  • Dosing: 0.1mg PO (or 5mcg/kg PO if SBP >90 mmHg) every 60 minutes as needed for sympathetic symptoms
    • Major adverse effect is hypotension
  • Clonidine patches are not useful for acute withdrawal due to the 24hr delayed release[citation needed]


  • Generally reservered for outpatien thterapy
  • Decreases serotonergic activity[4]


  • Can be added along with with clonidine for adequate sedation



  • Consider if withdrawal was precipitated by interruption in opioid use, NOT if antagonist (e.g. narcan) was given
  • Dose: 10mg IM or 20mg PO


  • Patients who need long term detoxification can be admitted or transferred to detox facilities
  • If patients are going to continue to use opioids then those who are stable can be discharged
  • Patients with severe withdrawal requiring sedation and continued monitoring should be admitted

See Also


  1. Olmedo R, Hoffman RS. Withdrawal syndromes. Emerg Med Clin North Am. 2000;18(2):273–88.
  2. Kosten TR, O’Connor PG. Management of drug and alcohol withdrawal. N Engl J Med 2003;348:1786-95
  3. Doberczak TM et al. Relationship between maternal methadone dosage, maternal-neonatal methadone levels, and neonatal withdrawal. Obstet Gynecol. 1993. 81:936–940.
  4. Van den Brink W et al. Evidence-based treatment of opioid-dependent patients. Can J Psychiatry 2006; 51:635.