Tapering off opioids: When and how

If you've taken opioid medications for more than a couple of weeks, it's likely you need to stop soon — and stop slowly, to avoid severe symptoms of withdrawal.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

When it's time to stop using the opioid medication

Opioids are powerful painkillers. Despite the risks associated with opioid use — including high rates of abuse, addiction and accidental overdose — they are still the most effective option for acute, short-term pain. Your doctor may prescribe opioids to help you get through a few days of severe pain after surgery or a traumatic injury. Opioid medications also play an important role in treating cancer-related pain and, rarely, chronic, noncancer pain when other treatments haven't worked.

If you've taken opioids for less than two weeks, you should be able to simply stop these medications as soon as your prescribed course of pills runs out, if not before. Ask your doctor if you're not sure when you can stop your medications.

If you've taken opioid medications for more than two weeks, you may also need to stop using these medications as soon as possible to prevent serious consequences. Common signs that it's time to get off opioids include serious side effects, reduced pain relief from the same dose of medications over time (tolerance), or behaviors that raise concerns about misuse, abuse or addiction.

Don't try to go cold turkey on your own. When it's time for you to stop taking opioids, ask for your doctor's help to develop a medication withdrawal plan (called a taper) that gradually reduces the amount of medication you take. Opioid withdrawal can be dangerous, and symptoms can be severe. Depending on the type and dose of drug you've been taking, it may take weeks or even months to gradually and safely reduce your dose and get off your opioid medication.

Stopping opioids can be difficult, but you can do it. You're much more likely to succeed if you partner with your doctor, plan your taper schedule, manage your symptoms and learn alternative ways to cope with pain.

Not sure if your medication is considered an opioid?

Opioid medications on the market today include hydrocodone (Hysingla ER, Zohydro ER), hydrocodone-acetaminophen (Norco, Zyfrel, others), fentanyl (Actiq, Duragesic, Fentora), oxycodone (OxyContin, Roxicodone, others), oxycodone-acetaminophen (Percocet, Roxicet, others) and many others. Ask your doctor if you don't know whether your painkiller is an opioid.

Jan. 10, 2018