Opioids are a category of drugs also called narcotics, and this group includes heroin and prescription pain relievers. When someone takes opioids, they may become addicted, dependent, or both. Addiction is a chronic disease characterized by compulsive drug-seeking and continuation of drug use even when negative things happen as a result. Addiction is psychological. Dependence, on the other hand, is a physical consequence. Dependence on opioids causes withdrawal when someone stops using drugs.
Withdrawal symptoms common with opioids include nausea and vomiting, anxiety and mood disturbances, depression, aches, pains, headaches and more. The process of letting opioids clear from the system is called detox, and for many opioid-dependent people, detox is the scariest part of addiction treatment. Along with a medically-supervised detox program, some medications can help alleviate the symptoms of opioid withdrawal. In the battle to curb the effects of the opioid epidemic, there have been new treatment options introduced in recent years.
One of the most commonly used prescription medicines for opioid withdrawal is Suboxone. Suboxone is intended to be used under medical supervision, as part of a drug treatment program. The use of Suboxone is one of the most optimal medication-assisted treatment (MAT) options for heroin and prescription drug users. Suboxone can temporarily help opioid-dependent individuals avoid withdrawal symptoms and extreme cravings so that they can successfully begin treatment. Despite the advantages of Suboxone, people have questions about this medication. Some questions include is Suboxone a narcotic, what are the risks of Suboxone, and can you become addicted to Suboxone.
Suboxone isn’t the only medication-assisted treatment for opioid-dependent people. Methadone is one option that was largely used until newer options were introduced. Methadone is an opioid and is sometimes prescribed for pain, as well as for opioid dependence. The problem with methadone is that first and foremost, it is also habit-forming. It’s not uncommon for people to replace one opioid addiction with methadone when they start taking it.
Suboxone is unique because it’s a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone. Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist. This means that it activates the same receptors as an opioid like heroin, but in a less significant way. It’s not likely a user would feel a euphoric high with buprenorphine, and the side effects are less intense. The withdrawal profile is also less severe with buprenorphine. What buprenorphine does is keep the opioid receptors occupied to avoid withdrawal symptoms, without producing a full-blown high or opioid experience.
Other prescription medications have buprenorphine, including Subutex. Subutex is different from Suboxone, however, because it only contains buprenorphine. Suboxone by contrast also contains something called naloxone. Naloxone is an opioid antagonist, so if someone attempts to use other opioids while on Suboxone, they won’t feel high. Naloxone blocks the effects of opioids, and it can also trigger precipitated withdrawal. Precipitated opioid withdrawal is a sudden onset of withdrawal symptoms. Even trying to abuse Suboxone by injecting it, as an example, can cause precipitated opioid withdrawal.
With a Suboxone prescription, it’s important to make sure other opioids have completely cleared from the system before using it. If someone takes Suboxone too early, this can also lead to precipitated withdrawal, and once it starts, it’s difficult to reverse. The recommendation is to wait until opioid withdrawal symptoms appear before taking the first dose of Suboxone.
So, is Suboxone a narcotic? The buprenorphine in Suboxone can technically be considered a narcotic because opioids and narcotics are the same things. Naloxone, however, is not a narcotic. It is actually an antagonist of narcotics. Even the buprenorphine is not a full-blown narcotic like heroin or oxycodone. While it does occupy the same receptors in the central nervous system as narcotics, buprenorphine doesn’t have the same effect.
Suboxone medication has many benefits, but it’s not without risks. First, a Suboxone prescription needs to be used in conjunction with rehab or a drug treatment program. Suboxone only helps combat withdrawal symptoms and cravings. It does nothing to address any of the other elements of addiction or contributing factors. Suboxone medication also can’t help users learn strategies to avoid relapse in the future.
With Suboxone medication, there is also the chance that you could become physically dependent on it, or begin to misuse it, although these risks are low. The inclusion of naloxone is intended to prevent drug misuse, but the slight risk is still present. There is also a risk of overdosing on Suboxone. This is especially true if it’s combined with another central nervous system depressant, such as alcohol or benzodiazepines.
Suboxone medication is a powerful tool in the fight against the opioid epidemic, and it has benefits for users. At the same time, when using a Suboxone prescription it’s important to do so as part of a drug treatment plan, and follow a physician’s instructions very carefully. Suboxone does have the narcotic element of buprenorphine, so it’s not entirely risk-free, even though these are minimal.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.