a group discussing an opioid taper

What Does it Mean to Taper off Opioids?

You may have heard the term “tapering off opioids” but many people are unclear of what exactly it means. If you or someone you love has been taking opioid medications for more than a week or two there is a chance of encountering withdrawal symptoms. The best way to avoid these uncomfortable symptoms is through a process known as tapering.

What Does the Opioid Tapering Process Look Like?

Tapering off opioids is a gradual process of reducing doses over time until the medication is no longer needed. It is important to take tapering seriously and follow your physician’s instructions carefully. Depending on the situation, tapering can take anywhere from weeks to months as it requires a slow and steady approach.

How Does a Doctor Monitor an Opioid Taper?

During the tapering process, your doctor will closely monitor the process to ensure that withdrawal symptoms stay at a manageable level. Depending on the type of opioid being tapered, doses may be reduced in increments of 10-25%, or even more gradually if necessary. 

Blood tests and other forms of monitoring may also be done to ensure proper tapering is taking place. You may also be prescribed other medications to manage symptoms like insomnia. Your doctor will also likely recommend other ways to manage pain to substitute opioids.

What Medications are Considered Opioids?

Opioid medications include narcotic prescription drugs that are commonly prescribed after surgery or other medical procedure. These medications are used for pain relief but can also be highly addictive when not taken as instructed. Over-the-counter medications such as codeine may also be considered an opioid if taken in large quantities or without being prescribed by a doctor.

Common opioids include:

  • Vicodin (hydrocodone and acetaminophen)
  • OxyContin (oxycodone)
  • Hydromorphone
  • Oxymorphone
  • Morphine
  • Methadone
  • Percocet (hydrocodone and acetaminophen)
  • Fentanyl
  • Tramadol

Heroin is also considered an opioid, but is illegal and produced illicitly. Heroin is never used in a medical setting and therefore it’s never been prescribed. However, in order to overcome heroin dependence, tapering is still used as a detox method.

How Do I Know When I Should Start Tapering Opioids?

It is important to taper off opioids before the body develops physical dependence. This can be difficult to determine since everyone’s body chemistry and response to medications vary. Generally speaking, tapering should start when it is clear that the opioid medication is not providing enough relief from pain or other symptoms. A doctor may suggest tapering if he/she notices a decrease in the effectiveness of an opioid medication over time or an increase in side effects.

If tapering off opioids happens too quickly, withdrawal symptoms may occur such as nausea and vomiting, rapid heart rate, sweating, muscle cramps, irritability, and insomnia. It’s important to speak with your doctor about tapering down opioids safely so you can avoid these uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms

What are Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms?

Opioid withdrawal symptoms can vary depending on the type of opioid being used and how severe the addiction is. Common opioid withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle aches
  • Cold sweats
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Anxiety.

In more severe cases of opioid withdrawal, seizures and hallucinations may also occur.

Medications such as buprenorphine or methadone can help reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms when tapering off opioids in a safe manner. It’s important to speak with your doctor about tapering off opioids to ensure it is done safely and effectively. By tapering opioids slowly over time with the help of your doctor, you will be able to avoid any uncomfortable side effects associated with tapering off too quickly.

What Factors Affect How to Taper Off Opioids?

It’s important to note, tapering off opioids may be different for everyone depending on the type and amount of opioid medication you are taking. Factors that may be considered can include:

  • The type of opioid: Opioids can be classified as long-acting, short-acting, or mixed. The overall process of tapering off opioids will depend on the type of opioid you used and how it is released into your system.
  • Duration of use: Generally, tapering off opioids should take place over a period of weeks or months depending on how long you have been taking the medication.
  • Dosage: How much medication is prescribed by your doctor may also affect tapering off opioids. It’s important to speak with your doctor about tapering off in order to find the right dosage for you.
  • Biological factors: Your weight, age, and gender may also affect how you should be tapering off opioids.
  • Co-occurring mental health or co-morbid disorders: If you’re also taking medications for other conditions those will be taken into consideration. It’s important to make sure that the taper is effective but does not affect any other treatment protocols.

If you’ve been taking opioids for a long period of time and have been doing so illegally without a prescription you should consider talking to an addiction treatment specialist. You may need more medical help than a simple taper to overcome your opioid abuse.

Opioid Abuse Statistics in America

Opioid abuse has become an alarming and growing problem in the United States. In 2019, more than 46 people died every day from overdoses involving prescription opioids. Furthermore, 10.3 million people misused prescription opioids that same year.

Other statistics include:

  • In 2020 adults aged 25- to 34 years old experienced the most opioid overdose deaths, 17,344 which was a 38% increase from 2019, and a 1,312% increase since 1999.
  • In 2020 there were 91,799 drug-involved overdose deaths reported. 69% of these cases were men.
  • From 1999 to 2021 overdose deaths related to synthetic opioids (excluding methadone) have increased 97-fold.

How Do I Get Help for Opioid Addiction?

If you or someone you love is suffering from opioid addiction you should seek professional help from addiction treatment specialists. Opioid addiction is difficult to overcome with the help of a treatment facility. Attempting to quit using opioids cold turkey or self-treat your addiction is not recommended.

Getting the help you need will typically start with an opioid detox to break physical dependence. However, after detox, you will need to enter into a treatment program to understand the underlying conditions related to opioid use disorder.