How Long Do Opioids Stay in Your System?
Whether you’re recovering from a tooth extraction and have been given Oxycodone to manage your pain or you’ve made the courageous decision to stop using opioids altogether, you may be keen on knowing how quickly your body will rid these narcotics from your system.
But first: What are opioids, exactly?
“Opioids” refer to a group of powerful drugs partially derived from the opium (or poppy) plant and manufactured in a lab.1 These drugs bind to opioid receptors in the body and elicit sensations of euphoria while also suppressing pain. Exceptionally addictive in nature, they contribute to an estimated 130 overdose deaths per day in the United States.2
Read on as we break down the factors that determine the lifespan of opioids, how long do opioids stay in your system, and when it may be time to pursue opioid treatment.
Types of Opioids
From a bottle of Percocet your physician prescribed to recover from surgery to heroin that’s sold on the street, the different types of opioids run the gamut. Their similarities include the effects they cause and their innately dangerous, habit-forming nature.3 To get a better understanding, we’ll break down opioids vs. opiates below.
“Natural” opioids are, in fact, opiates—or narcotics derived from the poppy plant, which produces alkaloids that have dramatic, pain-relieving properties. A few of the most common “natural” opiates include:4
“Synthetic” opioids are narcotics that are created in a tightly-regulated or illegal lab but have an impact that mirrors naturally-derived opiates. You may be more familiar with synthetic opioids as:
“Semi-synthetic” opioids are precisely as they sound: They’re made from the opium plant but are chemically altered.5 These include:
These semi-synthetic opioids are often prescribed to help patients handle severe pain, whether it’s from the advanced stages of cancer or a catastrophic accident.
Among all the different types of opioids, these are the most common opioids today:
Oxycontin and Vicodin are both commonly prescribed pain medications, while heroin is typically found illegally. Seeing these two drugs side-by-side may come as a surprise. Yet, when you consider the enormity of the opioid crisis in the United States, it’s clear why these drugs are creating waves of negative impact—their effects are on par with the most addictive and life-altering drug (heroin).
Opioid Half Life
While exploring how long do opioids stay in your system, you may have come across the term “half life.”
Simply put, this refers to the amount of time a drug takes to reach half of its potency after it has been consumed—or, to phrase it differently, the length of time required to process and eliminate half of the drug from your body. Up to 97% of drugs are cleared from your system after 4 to 5 half lives.6 So, if an opioid has a half life of 4 hours, it may have been eliminated from your body within 16 to 20 hours.
How quickly you can “push” opioids through your system is contingent upon several factors—more on these below. In the meantime, it’s important to note that the half life of opioids depends on whether they’re a long acting, short acting, or rapid-release drug.
Long Acting Opioids
Long acting opioids are narcotics that have an extended release—meaning, you’ll continue to feel the effects of them hours after taking them. Morphine, methadone, and Oxycodone are just a few examples of these.7
The half life of long acting opioids is approximately 4.5 hours.8
Short Acting Opioids
Short acting opioids are also characterized as “immediate release” opioids. Unlike long acting opioids, which “linger” in your bloodstream to prevent unbearable spikes of severe pain, short acting opioids are used to treat acute pain, such as in the first four to six hours after a surgery, and include:9
The half life for these drugs is about 3.2 hours.9
Rapid Onset Opioids
In medical settings, rapid onset opioids—or ROOs—are typically administered to help patients overcome unbearable pain spikes such as breakthrough cancer pain (BTCP).10 Fentanyl, for example, has a rapid onset; as in, its effects can be felt within 10 to 15 minutes after administration.
The half life for ROOs such as fentanyl is 7 hours; however, this depends on the drug’s route of administration—whether it was ingested orally or intravenously.11
Factors that Influence How Long Opioids Stay in Your System
Everyone metabolizes opioids differently. What may take someone 72 hours to process may take you 96 hours. Several factors play into the amount of time required to eliminate opioids, such as:12
- Nutritional status
- The amount of water in your body
- Overall health
- Frequency and duration of opioid use
Your kidney and liver health also influence how quickly or how slowly you’re able to metabolize opioids, as both of these organs have a critical role in elimination.
Drug Testing Methods for Opioids
Whether it’s for legal or employment purposes, or you’ve just begun treatment in an inpatient setting, several methods are used to assess the level of opioids in your system.13 These include the following:14
Urine tests are performed by urinating into a container that is taken into a lab for evaluation. Opioids can usually be detected in urine up to 7 days after the last dose.
Saliva tests are performed with a swab; this too is analyzed by a lab. Opioids may emerge in a saliva test between 5 hours and 4 days after consumption.
Hair tends to “hold onto” substance use for longer. In the case of opioids, that could be up to 90 days after using.
Blood tests look at drawn blood (performed by a technician) and may detect the presence of opioids 6 hours to 4 days after your last use.
Perspiration tests are conducted with a sweat patch and may show opioids up to 14 days after your last dose.15
Signs of Opioid Addiction
People dealing with chronic pain from injury or other conditions are often given prescription opioids for pain relief. But because of their powerful effects, it’s not uncommon for opioid use to progress into opioid addiction. However, how can you identify opioid dependence vs. addiction? If you suspect you or your loved one is suffering from opioid addiction—what’s clinically known as Opioid Use Disorder (OUD)—you may want to keep an eye out for these signs of opioid addiction:
- Increased tolerance to opioids—or, you have to consume more to achieve the same effects
- Intense cravings for more opioids, despite feeling and seeing negative effects to your health, relationships, financial situation, and work performance
- Uncontrollable using, such as continuing to take more and more Oxycontin throughout the day even after you’ve told yourself “just one”
- Behavioral changes that tend toward more erratic or secretive behavior—especially when those changes are used to take more opioids in private
If any of these signs sound familiar, please know that help is widely available—and recovery can be yours. Seeking professional help for your recovery will help you safely overcome withdrawal symptoms. How long does opioid withdrawal last? Several months at most, depending on how severe the addiction is. This is the most challenging time because, for some, the withdrawal symptoms are so severe that they may trigger a relapse. That’s why there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to addiction treatment.
Achieve Sobriety with Elevate Rehab
While it’s important to know the answer to how long do opioids stay in your system, this is only one step of addiction recovery. Depending on the method of testing, opioids can be discovered in your system for up to 90 days (assuming you have a hair test done).
If you or a loved one is in need of help with opioid detox and regaining a sense of self, there are dedicated, professional support systems available. And Elevate Rehab is one such premier solution for opioid addiction treatment.
As a holistic rehab center with locations in Santa Barbara and Lake Tahoe, we approach OUD from the viewpoint that your brain, body, and spirit must be nourished back to wellness, rather than isolating and treating only an addiction. Our empathetic staff of drug addiction treatment experts can help you get your life back on track—and emerge from opioid treatment stronger than you’ve ever been.
The right time to seek help is now. Reach out to us today to get started on one of our treatment programs.
- Mayo Clinic. What are opioids, and why are they dangerous? https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/prescription-drug-abuse/expert-answers/what-are-opioids/faq-20381270
- HRSA. Opioid crisis. https://www.hrsa.gov/opioids
- Yale Medicine. Opioid use disorder–fact sheet. https://www.yalemedicine.org/conditions/opioid-use-disorder
- Opiate.com. A list of opiates. https://www.opiate.com/opiates/a-list-of-opiates/
- Mayo Clinic Press. Which opioids are prescribed today and when are they used? https://mcpress.mayoclinic.org/opioids/types-of-opioids/
- National Library of Medicine. Half life. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK554498/
- FDA. List of extended-release and long-acting opioid products required to have an opioid REMS. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/information-drug-class/list-extended-release-and-long-acting-opioid-products-required-have-opioid-rems
- FDA. Oxycontin HCI label. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/drugsatfda_docs/label/2008/020553s059lbl.pdf
- Mayo Clinic Press. What exactly are opioids? https://mcpress.mayoclinic.org/opioids/what-exactly-are-opioids/
- ScienceDirect. The use of rapid onset opioids for breakthrough cancer pain: the challenge of its dosing. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1040842810002829
- PubChem. Fentanyl. https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/fentanyl#section=Metabolism-Metabolites
- Medicine.net. What does half life mean in drugs? Formula & factors. https://www.medicinenet.com/what_does_half_life_mean_in_drugs/article.htm
- MedLinePlus Medical Test. Opioid testing. https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/opioid-testing/
- Medicine.net. How long are opiates in urine? https://www.medicinenet.com/how_long_are_opiates_in_urine/ask.htm
- Testing.com. Opioid testing. https://www.testing.com/tests/opioid-drug-test/
Scott Friend, MSW, M.S.
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