Fentanyl is a powerful pain reliever prescribed to people who are tolerant to other opioids. Opioids are a class of drugs that include morphine. They are often misused for the high they produce.
As tolerance develops from regular exposure to the drug, the brain starts to rely on the drug to feel normal. This is called dependence. When a person stops taking the drug, the brain reacts negatively. This causes withdrawal symptoms.
Fentanyl is stronger than other opioids used to relieve pain, such as Vicodin or Percocet. Anyone who takes fentanyl for multiple days will become dependent on the drug. Prescription fentanyl patches are generally applied to the skin once every three days for pain relief. So people who are prescribed fentanyl patches will likely experience some form of withdrawal.
People who abuse fentanyl become dependent more quickly. The withdrawal symptoms caused by misusing fentanyl are usually more severe than withdrawal symptoms caused by therapeutic use.
Most opioids cause similar withdrawal symptoms. The severity and duration of the withdrawal symptoms depend on the type of opioid, the dose consumed and the frequency of use. The type of opioid is important because the strength of opioids differ.
For example, hydrocodone is about the same strength as morphine. Oxycodone is about 1.5 times stronger than morphine. Fentanyl is between 50 and 100 times stronger than morphine. Fentanyl is prescribed in low doses, but the effects are powerful. The withdrawal symptoms are severe if the drug is stopped abruptly.
Symptoms of fentanyl withdrawal include:
Withdrawal from fentanyl can begin within three to five hours of discontinuing the drug. The method of use affects when withdrawal occurs. Patches provide fentanyl for three days. Withdrawal from a fentanyl patch may begin about three days after putting the patch on the skin.
People who misuse fentanyl by smoking the drug or misusing patches may experience withdrawal more quickly. Peak effects of withdrawal usually begin eight to 12 hours after withdrawal begins, and fentanyl withdrawal usually lasts between four and five days.
Most forms of prescription fentanyl are administered infrequently. They’re used to treat breakthrough pain in cancer patients who are already receiving other forms of opioid medication. These people are tolerant to other opioids, but their tolerance is unlikely to increase from a single dose of fentanyl.
Most of the time, fentanyl withdrawal is caused by fentanyl patches or fentanyl misuse. You can taper off fentanyl patches without experiencing withdrawal by slowly reducing the dose of the drug. But you shouldn’t try to taper on your own.
Sample Fentanyl Patch Taper Schedule
Note: Tapering may be adjusted or extended by your doctor if withdrawal symptoms occur.
Doctors can prescribe decreasing doses of the drug. The label for Duragesic, a brand name of fentanyl patches, recommends decreasing the dosage by 50 percent every six days while monitoring for signs and symptoms of withdrawal.
Tapering off fentanyl without a doctor’s help is not a good idea. Attempting to manipulate fentanyl patches may cause a fentanyl overdose. It’s impossible to determine the strength of drugs purchased on the street. Using street drugs to taper off fentanyl may lead to other health problems, such as prescription drug addiction.
People who misuse fentanyl to get high or who are addicted to the drug may struggle to adhere to a tapering schedule. Medical detox programs help people trying to quit fentanyl stay accountable and detox in a safe environment.
Rehab facilities monitor individuals going through withdrawal and provide medication to ease some withdrawal symptoms. Addiction professionals can also administer opioid replacement therapy.
Medications called methadone and buprenorphine are opioids with low potential for abuse. They’re used to slowly wean individuals off other opioids, such as fentanyl.
People who are receiving opioid replacement therapy can attend opioid rehab, where they will learn healthy strategies for avoiding relapse.
Fentanyl withdrawal can happen to those who misuse fentanyl and to people receiving fentanyl for pain management. In both cases, doctors or other health professionals can allow clients to taper off fentanyl while easing most withdrawal symptoms.
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