What is Methadone?

Methadone is a synthetic narcotic used in the treatment of opiate addiction and, in some cases, chronic pain. When used to treat addiction, methadone can prevent the onset of withdrawal symptoms without causing the euphoria, or “high,” associated with drugs like heroin, morphine and oxycodone.

In the treatment of opiate addiction, methadone is typically administered as part of a maintenance program. Methadone maintenance programs are generally long-term and are designed to help patients abstain from illicit drug use without experiencing cravings or debilitating withdrawal symptoms. Ideally, methadone maintenance programs also include close monitoring from medical professionals as well as mandatory psychological counseling.

When taken correctly and in the proper dosages, methadone can reduce the risk of relapse with illicit drugs; however, there are various dangers associated with this drug. Keep reading to find out more about the potentially harmful effects of methadone use.

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Side Effects of Methadone

The side effects of methadone are comparable to those of other opioid drugs and often include the following:

  • Restricted, or “pinned,” pupils.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Drowsiness, “nodding,” fatigue, etc.
  • Itchiness.
  • Constipation or hard, bloody or painful bowel movements.
  • Difficulties urinating.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Headache.
  • Changes in appetite; for example, some patients experience a loss of appetite while others report cravings for fatty, sugary or otherwise unhealthy foods.
  • Fluctuations in weight.
  • Irritability and anxiety.
  • Tooth decay.
  • Bleeding gums.
  • Swelling of the hands, feet and legs.
  • Heartburn and indigestion.
  • Troubled breathing.
  • Cough
  • Chest pains.

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The Dangers of Methadone

Like other prescription narcotics, methadone is not without its dangers. A few of the most significant dangers associated with methadone use include those outlined below.

Overdose

One of the most serious risks associated with methadone use is overdose. This complication, which can be fatal, most often occurs when a patient either takes more than the recommended dosage of methadone or mixes the drug with other addictive substances. For example, using methadone in conjunction with alcohol, anti-anxiety drugs and even certain over-the-counter medications can significantly increase an individual’s risk of overdose.

Symptoms of a methadone overdose include the following:

  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Intestinal spasms.
  • Shallow or labored breathing.
  • Discoloration of the skin or lips.
  • Profuse sweating.
  • Weak pulse.
  • Abnormal heart rhythm.
  • Low blood pressure.
  • Dizziness, drowsiness or disorientation.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Clammy skin that is possibly cold to the touch.
  • Muscle spasms.

In the presence of these or other alarming symptoms, emergency treatment should be sought immediately.

Physical and Psychological Dependence

Even though methadone is used in the treatment of opiate addiction, it, too, carries a high risk of physical and psychological dependence. In fact, addiction to methadone is often more complex and severe than that of other opioid drugs. When methadone addiction occurs, discontinued use can lead to a variety of withdrawal symptoms, some of which include the following:

  • Sweating and chills
  • Tremors
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • High blood pressure
  • Anxiety, frustration and irritability
  • Intense cravings for methadone and/or other opiate drugs
  • Sneezing, runny nose and other flu-like symptoms
  • Restless legs, muscle spams, etc.
  • Severe body aches
  • Insomnia.

While these withdrawal symptoms are similar to those associated with other opioid drugs, they are often more severe and last for longer periods of time in patients addicted to methadone. In fact, the physical symptoms of methadone withdrawal can last three to four times longer than those of other opiates. Also, in terms of severity, these withdrawal symptoms often warrant medical attention as they increase a patient’s risk of stroke, seizure and other harmful complications.

Drug Interactions

Harmful drug interactions may occur when methadone is used in conjunction with certain medications. Mixing methadone with other drugs, both prescription and OTC, can lead to interactions which range in severity from unpleasant to life-threatening.

Drugs that cause the most harmful interactions when mixed with methadone are those that cause drowsiness. These medications, which include sedatives, sleep aids, antihistamines and antidepressants, slow the heart rate and increase an individual’s risk of respiratory failure and, in some cases, death. Other drugs that interact negatively with methadone include certain antiviral and antibiotic medications, analgesics, herbal remedies, epilepsy drugs and more. To prevent potential interactions, patients should speak with their doctors before using methadone in conjunction with any other medications.

Dangers During Pregnancy

Methadone is often administered during pregnancy as a means of preventing withdrawal symptoms, which may lead to miscarriage, and the use of illicit drugs. Since methadone use can be monitored by healthcare professionals, it is generally considered a safer alternative to other forms of addiction treatment. However, there are a number of complications that can occur as a result of methadone use during pregnancy. In addition to premature birth and low birth weight, addiction in newborns is a common concern. When this happens, newborns may be given a weaning dose of methadone in order to prevent potentially-harmful withdrawal symptoms.

When neonatal addiction occurs, the following signs and symptoms are often present:

  • Abnormal sleep patterns
  • High-pitched or inconsolable crying
  • Shakiness or tremors
  • Weight loss or insufficient weight gain
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Irritability

Organ Damage

Like other prescription and illicit drugs, methadone can cause damage to the organs in long-term patients. The liver and kidneys, for example, are often weakened as a result of prolonged methadone use. Plus, due to side effects like chronic constipation, methadone can lead to severe digestive problems as well.

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While methadone may be considered a safe alternative to illicit drug use, the dangers of this drug are significant. Before beginning a methadone maintenance program, patients should speak with a doctor to find out more about the effects of this drug.

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