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This article is for Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find the Strong Painkillers (Opioids) article more useful, or one of our other health articles.

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This article summarises the guidance on opioid detoxification from the drug misuse and dependence guidelines jointly produced by the Department of Health, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Assembly Government and the Northern Ireland Executive (last updated in September 2007),[1] as well as the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines on opioid detoxification for drug misuse.[2] It should be read in conjunction with the separate overview article Drug Misuse and Dependence: UK Guidelines.

Other topics related to this article are discussed in separate articles Assessment of Drug Dependence and Opioid Abuse and Dependence.

Detoxification is indicated for patients who wish to become drug-free (as opposed to maintenance, which is indicated for patients who wish to reduce their use but are not ready to come off opioids completely.

GPs providing care for patients undergoing detoxification regimes should do so in close co-operation with drug clinic workers and pharmacists. The degree of involvement of the GP will depend on their experience and training; GPs with a special interest may be confident in initiating detoxification regimes with minimal specialist involvement.[3]

  • Opioid detoxification should be offered in an appropriate setting to informed opioid-dependent patients ready for, and committed to, abstinence.[2]
  • Suitability for detoxification should be determined during the assessment process.
  • The aim is for safe and effective discontinuation of opiates and minimal withdrawal symptoms.
  • Detoxification usually takes about 28 days as an inpatient and up to 12 weeks in the community.
  • NICE recommends that a community-based programme should be routinely offered. However, it does suggest that exceptions to this may include:
    • Those who have had previous unsuccessful community detoxification.
    • Those who need medical and nursing care due to significant mental or physical health problems.
    • Those who require complex polydrug detoxification.
    • Those who have significant social problems that may limit the success of community-based detoxification.
  • Methadone, and buprenorphine are equally effective in detoxification regimens. The place of lofexidine in detoxification programmes requires further research.[4]
  • Opioid detoxification should be offered as part of a package including preparation and post-detoxification support to prevent relapse.
  • Psychosocial interventions (eg talking therapies, cognitive behavioural therapy, family therapy) and keyworking should be delivered alongside pharmacological interventions.[2]
  • If detoxification is unsuccessful, patients should have access back into maintenance and other treatment.
  • Is the patient committed and fully informed about the detoxification process?[2]
    • Does the patient understand the physical and psychological aspects of opioid withdrawal and how they can be managed?
    • Does the patient understand how non-pharmacological approaches can help with withdrawal symptoms?
    • Does the patient understand the increased risk of overdose and death after detoxification if illicit drug use resumes (due to the loss of opioid tolerance; increased risk if alcohol and benzodiazepines are also used)?
  • Has the high risk of relapse been explained to the patient?
  • Are adequate social support networks available following detoxification?
  • Is there availability of continuing professional support and treatment to maintain abstinence?

Use the drug on which the patient has been stabilised. NICE states that there is no evidence that methadone or buprenorphine differs in its effectiveness during detoxification and recommends that they can both be used as first-line.[5] NICE does not support the use of ultra-rapid detoxification under general anaesthetic or sedation because of the risk of serious adverse effects.

GPs prescribing methadone or buprenorphine should do so in instalments using FP10 (MDA) in England and Wales or GP10 (3) in Scotland, initially daily.[3] For more information on writing prescriptions for controlled drugs in general practice see separate Controlled Drugs article.

The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) warns that several missed doses may mean a loss of tolerance to opioids. If three days are missed consecutively a dose review and possible reduction in dose should be considered. If five or more days are missed consecutively, re-assessment and re-induction should be considered.[3]


  • Stabilise the patient on methadone. Please refer to the separate article Substitute Prescribing for Opioid Dependence for further details regarding how to do this.
  • Reduce the dose by about 5 mg every 1-2 weeks, aiming to achieve a dose of zero at 12 weeks.


  • Stabilise the patient on buprenorphine.
  • Reduce the dose by 2 mg about every two weeks initially.
  • Reduce by 400 micrograms about every two weeks nearer the end of the detoxification process.


  • This is not a controlled drug and is a non-opioid alpha-adrenergic agonist.
  • Start at 800 micrograms daily in divided doses and increase by 400-800 micrograms daily to a maximum of 2.4 mg daily in divided doses. A dose reduction is then needed.
  • Treatment duration is 7-10 days but longer may be needed.
  • NICE guidance states that lofexidine can be considered for detoxification in:[2]
    • Those who have decided not to use methadone/buprenorphine.
    • Those who want a short detoxification period.
    • Those with mild or uncertain dependence (including young people).
  • Side-effects include:
    • Dry mouth
    • Sedation
    • Hypotension and bradycardia
  • Daily monitoring to check blood pressure and enquire about withdrawal symptoms should take place initially.
  • Other medication may be needed for opioid withdrawal symptoms such as diarrhoea and stomach cramps.

Other drugs[3]

Morphine sulphate, dihydrocodeine and diamorphine are also occasionally used and have an increasing evidence base worldwide.

Evidence that any of these drugs improve outcome is lacking:

  • Diarrhoea: loperamide 4 mg immediately followed by 2 mg after each loose stool for up to five days; usual dose 6-8 mg daily, maximum 16 mg daily.
  • Nausea, vomiting and stomach cramps: metoclopramide 10 mg every eight hours or prochlorperazine 5 mg tds or 12.5 mg IM 12-hourly.
  • Stomach cramps: mebeverine 135 mg tds.
  • Agitation, anxiety and insomnia: diazepam up to 5-10 mg tds prn or zopiclone 7.5 mg nocte if previously benzodiazepine-dependent.
  • Muscular pains and headaches: paracetamol and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or topical rubefacients.
  • Naltrexone is an opioid antagonist. It can block a former opiate user from experiencing the effects of opiates when taken regularly. Therefore, it can be helpful in maintaining abstinence following detoxification.
  • NICE supports the use of naltrexone.[6] The guidance advises:
    • Naltrexone can be considered as a treatment option in people who have previously been opioid-dependent and are highly motivated to remain abstinent after detoxification.
    • It should be given as part of a programme of supportive care.
    • Patients should be fully informed of its potential adverse effects.
    • Its effectiveness should be regularly reviewed and it should be discontinued if there is evidence of opioid misuse.

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Further reading and references

  1. Drug misuse and dependence UK guidelines on clinical management; Dept of Health (England), the Scottish Government, Welsh Assembly Government and Northern Ireland Executive (2007) - archived content

  2. Drug misuse in over 16s: opioid detoxification; NICE Clinical Guideline (July 2007)

  3. Guidance for the use of substitute prescribing in the treatment of opioid dependence in primary care; Royal College of General Practitioners (2011)

  4. Meader N; A comparison of methadone, buprenorphine and alpha(2) adrenergic agonists for Drug Alcohol Depend. 2010 Apr 1108(1-2):110-4. Epub 2010 Jan 13.

  5. Methadone and buprenorphine for the management of opioid dependence; NICE Technology Appraisal Guidance, January 2007

  6. Naltrexone for the management of opioid dependence; NICE Technology Appraisal Guidance, January 2007