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Treating Opioid Withdrawals with Imodium Can Be Dangerous

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Treating Opioid Withdrawals with Imodium Can Be Dangerous

Jul 29, 2016

Rather than seek professional help for opioid abuse some people addicted to those drugs turn to the Web for solutions for easing their withdrawals. One product being misused to treat opioid withdrawals is the diarrhea-relief medicine Imodium. Emergency physician Dr. Troy Madsen warns about the life-threatening dangers of using this over-the-counter anti-diarrheic for detox.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: Using Imodium to treat opioid withdrawals: a bad idea. We'll find out more about this disturbing trend next on The Scope.

Announcer: This is "From the Frontlines" with emergency room physician Doctor Troy Madsen on The Scope. On The Scope.

Interviewer: Doctor Troy Madsen is an emergency room physician at University of Utah Health Care and he said he'd seen a couple instances where people are using Imodium, which is an anti-diarrhea medication, as a way of trying to treat their withdrawal symptoms from opioids. I find this hard to believe. What's going on?

Dr. Madsen: Yeah. So this is really interesting. So as you may know, there's an opioid epidemic in our country and the Centers for Disease Control has acknowledged this and said we have so many people who are using opioids now. So prescription opioids, things like Percocet, Norco, Oxycodone are using that for to get high. Essentially what they may consider it legal high because they're getting a prescription or it's a prescription medication they're buying from someone.

So then, these individuals may then be saying to themselves, "I really can't be doing this. I need to get off this medication." So they're finding things on the Internet that discuss using Imodium or loperamide is the generic name and using that to sort of detox, taking that as a bridge to give yourself some of the same effects as the opioids give you while allowing your body to adapt and adjust and then gradually get off the medication.

Interviewer: So, first of all, bad idea trying to self-treat an addiction like that?

Dr. Madsen: Absolutely, not a great idea. But the reason they're doing this is because it's probably been out there for years and then I think it's just gained steam with some people posting things on the Internet about this. But Imodium or loperamide is actually an opioid. It doesn't give you the same high as things like Oxycodone, but it has kind of the same effects, acts on some of the same receptors in the body.

That's why it help with diarrhea because if you've ever heard of someone who says, "Hey, taking all these Percocets and I can't have a bowel movement. It constipates me." Well, that's kind of how this stuff works for diarrhea. Same kind of idea. It slows down the bowels but also then acts on somebody's same receptors in the body that opioids act on that people are using for highs.

Interviewer: Yeah. So self-treating bad but, above and beyond that, Imodium causes other problems that you see then?

Dr. Madsen: It does. And the big thing we're seeing is some of these people are just taking such incredibly high doses that it's been putting their heart into these arrhythmias, these abnormal heart rhythms that are life-threatening. And that's where we see it in the ER. I've seen cases of people coming in who are in just these crazy heart rhythms, these life-threatening heart rhythms and it's because they're taking large doses of Imodium and then that is triggering this heart rhythm.

And really, it's the kind of heart rhythm where you've got to shock their heart to get them out of it, get them on medication, do something for it or their hearts just not going to keep working and they're going to die from this.

Interviewer: That doesn't sound much better.

Dr. Madsen: It doesn't. It's not a great thing to do.

Interviewer: It doesn't sound like a great solution to the original problem.

Dr. Madsen: Yeah, there's not. There are much better solutions to opioid addiction and to getting off that. It's a sort of thing where you've come into the ER, we will often get people into in-patient detox programs. We can also prescribe medications that can help with this. So I would not recommend taking Imodium or loperamide. Again, that's the generic name for it. I would not recommend taking that to treat an opioid addiction because of the threat of these abnormal heart rhythms.

And this really comes up because there was actually just a study published or report in one of the big emergency medicine journals talking about increasing cases of this and increasing calls to poison centers for people who are taking more and more of these medications to try and treat opioid addictions and then are having very bad effects from this.

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