What is “Dope Sick?” Defining the Triggering Term Every Addict Knows

When parents, siblings, or friends become exposed to the life of addiction, it can mean hearing unfamiliar terms or phrases. Among those is the slang “dope sick.” Even if you’ve heard the words, they likely came from pop culture, maybe a film or television character’s dialog or song lyrics. 

Dope sick is a phrase commonly used within the opioid community to describe the painful physical and psychological agony associated with the experience of quitting drugs. It is a term that every addict knows, and the thought alone can often trigger the user. A fact many people outside of the addiction community don’t know or understand is that the fear of getting dope sick often acts as a barrier to recovery for many addicts, even if their life has become entirely derailed by drugs. 

In many cases, fear surrounding the experiences can propel heavier drug use, sometimes resulting in a fatal overdose. The mental and physical pain from quitting drugs keeps many from taking the actions necessary to achieve the long-term sobriety that can save their lives. Understanding this term and how the complicated experience affects the community is more vital now than ever.

Why Is the Term “Dope Sick” More Prevalent Now?

Journalist Beth Macy published a marginally fictionalized recounting of America’s oxycontin crisis in 2018, which was adapted into a critically acclaimed television series for HULU in 2021 entitled Dopesick. But the title was a metaphor for the experiences of an industry and local neighborhoods rather than being directly related to the ailment itself.

In addition, for the last decade or more, fentanyl use has changed the drug scene and withdrawal experience tremendously due to its role in increasing overdoses worldwide. It has brought the experience of being dope sick to a new level with its extreme potency. If someone close to you is struggling with addiction, it’s essential to learn about dope sickness and how to avoid it. (For more information about your treatment options for opioid abuse, including fentanyl abuse, with GateHouse Treatment, click here.)

What Does Being Dope Sick Feel Like?

Being dope sick refers to the intense and uncomfortable physical, psychological, and emotional symptoms experienced when quitting opioids such as heroin, fentanyl, or other drugs after consuming them regularly. Common dope-sick symptoms can include:

  •  Intense cravings
  •  Irritability 
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Stomach pain
  • Cramping
  • Nausea
  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Vomiting
  • Restlessness 
  • Muscle aches 
  • Insomnia and more

Many people feel like they have an excruciatingly severe flu while going through a dope-sick episode. Those without addiction experience need to understand that these symptoms are genuine and can be triggered by withdrawal from any drug. The intensity of these signs and symptoms also fluctuates depending on individual usage levels. It is important to remember that dope sickness does not discriminate. It affects individuals from all different walks of life with any level of opioid dependency. 

Why Do Opioids or Synthetic Opioids Like Fentanyl Make Someone Dope Sick?

The use of opioids changes the chemical structure of the brain over time. Painful physical symptoms and intense psychological distress are experienced after developing a drug dependency and suddenly stopping or abruptly reducing intake. Understanding the dope-sick mechanism can help reduce stigma and promote an increased appreciation of how heavily our complex neurochemistry affects our physical and mental well-being.

What Should You Do If an Individual Is Experiencing Dope Sickness?

Identifying when someone is dope sick or suffering from opioid withdrawal can be difficult because it can often appear like other health conditions. It’s essential to pay attention to specific signs like severe or irregular irritability and agitation behaviors. Be mindful of other physical effects such as nausea, cramping, sweating, and unpredictable changes in heart rate. 

Often opioid withdrawal can be confused with the flu, as previously mentioned, but withdrawal from opioids tends to cause much more severe reactions than the flu. This is typically common in the early stages of withdrawal. While identifying a dope-sick episode can be challenging, it is a critical step toward recovery. Furthermore, having a network of family members or friends knowledgeable about drug abuse can help provide the support and understanding needed to abstain.

If you know for certain a friend or loved one is suffering from addiction, consider speaking to a healthcare professional about treatment options that can help manage dope sickness while reducing the effects of opioid withdrawal. Medications such as methadone or buprenorphine can help ease withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Additionally, counseling and support groups can offer a sense of community and understanding. Selecting the correct intervention can lead to meaningful and lasting recovery.

Dope sickness is an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situation that can jeopardize a person’s health and well-being. If you know someone is dope sick, seeking medical help as soon as possible is essential to ensure the opioid withdrawal symptoms are managed safely.

How Can Someone Avoid Getting Dope Sick?

Avoiding dope sickness is the goal of any person recovering from opioid addiction. As fentanyl, oxycontin, and other potent synthetic opiates flood unsuspecting neighborhoods, withdrawal symptoms have intensified. Knowing how certain substances affect your body can help you stay safe. Additionally, it’s important not to mix substances. 

Becoming dope sick can be avoided entirely if you take proper care to prevent withdrawal symptoms in the first place. This means getting help with addiction and staying away from drugs altogether. Additionally, it is critical to identify if you’re feeling dope sick so you can seek professional assistance before it becomes too severe. 

Even if you feel relapsing is inevitable, and the idea of becoming dope sick scares you, it’s important to remember there are resources available. Whether recovery begins in an outpatient program, hospital or drug treatment center, there are options to manage cravings and opioid withdrawal symptoms in support of long-term recovery.

What Are the Dangers of Dope Sickness? Can It Really Lead to Death?

It’s true: the most severe withdrawal cases can lead to a serious risk of death or permanent health damage. This is often due to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance as a result of prolonged vomiting or diarrhea. In some instances, addicts take very high doses of opioids, such as fentanyl, to “fix” or correct symptoms. This sort of overcompensation is among the leading reasons why being dope sick can result in an overdose. 

Another danger of dope sickness is that it can make individuals desperate. They may take extreme measures to combat dope sicknesses, possibly even engaging in illegal activities and other dangerous behaviors. The individual experiencing dope sickness could suffer from extreme anguish, which leads them to disregard their safety when searching for their drug of choice. Unreliable dealers, poorly produced drugs, and a lack of rational thinking can all contribute to their situation becoming worse, if not dire. 

Why Is Becoming Dope Sick a Blocker to Recovery for Some Addicts?

The severity of dope sickness can numb addicts emotionally, making it even harder to stay motivated on their recovery journey. Some addicts cannot handle the intensity of the experience and give up or never take the first steps toward becoming clean. Others simply become demoralized and stagnant with their drug use. It is difficult enough to face challenges that seem insurmountable without having one’s brain chemically altered. Withdrawal symptoms present a massive barrier to recovery for many attempting to conquer their addiction.

GateHouse Treatment and Dope Sickness

GateHouse Treatment recognizes that conquering addiction works best when tailored to each person’s needs. With the right help and support, recovery from addictions like opioids and fentanyl is more than possible. It is commonplace. Even when it feels like the darkness is on the verge of being overwhelming, knowing there is an exit and that others have found their way out from the worst despair can be invaluable. If someone close is struggling with these dangerous drugs, we can help them get through the withdrawal to achieve sobriety and freedom on the other side of the pain. 

Here at GateHouse Treatment, we are dedicated to creating a meaningful client recovery process that supports your goals and puts you first. Our process includes proven methodologies and comprehensive therapy. For more information about our treatment approach, reach us at (855) 448-3588 or contact us here. It’s never too late to reach out for help.

GateHouse Treatment Editorial Staff
Latest posts by GateHouse Treatment Editorial Staff (see all)

Let Us Help

Call (855) 448-3588 or complete the form below. We are available 24/7.

All Calls are Free and Confidential

"(Required)" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Does My Health Insurance Cover Treatment?

Take a closer look​ for a free, confidential consultation. A specialist will follow up and explain how we can help.​ We are here for you 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. Don’t wait.

Get started on the road to recovery

Find out how we can help you starting today!
Scroll to Top