Dope Sickness and What to Expect During Recovery

Provided by:
James H. Davis, M.A., Associate Program Director at Sierra Tucson

Dope Sickness
This month marks the 25th Anniversary of National Recovery Month.  Each September, thousands of prevention, treatment, and recovery programs and services around the country celebrate their successes and share them with their neighbors, friends and colleagues in an effort to educate the public about recovery, how it works, for whom and why. There are millions of Americans whose lives have been transformed through recovery. These successes often go unnoticed by the broader population; therefore, Recovery Month provides a vehicle to celebrate these accomplishments.
In honor of this celebration, it seems fit to educate the public on one of the difficult side effects that substance abusers often go through on their journey to recovery. Dope sickness is a term referring to being in withdrawal from drugs, most commonly opiates, including street drugs (opium, heroin, Rx pain pills) or those prescribed for pain (morphine, codeine, oxycontin, hydromorphone, fentanyl, etc.).  Dope sickness is a very difficult and painful part of coming off of such drugs, due to the addictive nature. When people withdraw from these substances, they often suffer from flu-like symptoms including:
  • Muscle aches
  • Sweating or fever
  • Yawning
  • Runny nose/tearing eyes
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Lack of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dilated pupils (photo-sensitivity)
  • Chills
  • Hypersensitivity to pain
  • Feeling ill at ease
At the beginning, the symptoms become worse and grow more intense with each passing moment.  Unfortunately, there are only two ways to alleviate the symptoms of dope sickness: to take more of the drug causing the withdrawal or go through the withdrawal until the body is no longer dope sick.  There are medications that can be prescribed that can help with the pain, cravings and other symptoms.  However, the importance of proper diet, exercise and daily structure should not be minimized.
Dope Sickness can last from a few days to over a month, depending on what the drug is, how high the dosage the user was taking, and how long the individual has been using the drug.  This is where professional help often becomes essential to recovery.  Treatment centers can help with symptoms of dope sickness through medical intervention.  They also provide the daily structure, proper diet and exercise that are vitally important.
Drug withdrawal and dope sickness, while painful and uncomfortable, are not medically dangerous for an otherwise healthy individual, however, can be harmful to a developing fetus, as can drug use in general.  To avoid the uncomfortable symptoms, a user will often continue the addictive habit, or revisit usage as the symptoms of dope sickness continue to intensify.  It is important to recognize that the benefits of recovery far outweigh the effects of withdrawal and dope sickness, mentally and physically.
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James H. Davis, M.A., Associate Program Director at Sierra Tucson
Since October 2000, James Davis has worked in several clinical areas at Sierra Tucson. He has served as primary therapist in the programs for Mood, Chemical Dependency, Trauma, Eating Disorders, and Pain Management. In July 2013, Jim was appointed to the role of Associate Program Director. He received his Master of Arts degree in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University at Santa Barbara, California, in 1986 and was licensed as a MFT (California) in 1991.  Sierra Tucson is a program of CRC Health Group, the nation’s largest and most comprehensive network of specialized behavioral health and addiction services. CRC offers the largest array of personalized treatment options, allowing individuals, families, and professionals to choose the most appropriate treatment setting for their behavioral, addiction, weight management and therapeutic education needs. CRC is committed to making its services widely and easily available, while maintaining a passion for delivering advanced treatment. Since 1995, CRC programs have helped individuals and families reclaim and enrich their lives.  For more information, please visit
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