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FAQ: How Long Do Painkillers Stay in Your System?

Doctors give out prescription painkillers as if they are candy. In 2012 alone, 259 million prescriptions for painkillers were written. That's enough for every adult in America to have their own bottle of pills. Unfortunately, these numbers have been rising each year. More pain clinics have started to pop up.

Many patients take prescription painkillers without even a second thought. They often don't realize the addictive potential of these medications until it’s too late. By then, they’re hooked, and their body has developed both tolerance and dependence to the drug.

Each type of painkiller works in a different way. The chemical composition and active ingredients in each drug are quite different. As a result, different types of painkillers will remain in your system for varying lengths of time. Due to this reason, there's no set answer for how long painkillers will stay in your body. It varies based on the painkiller.

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Length of Time Pain Pills Stay in the Body

The length of time that various painkillers stay in your system will vary from drug to drug. It’s difficult to give patients a concrete answer without knowing the drug that is being taken, as well as the dosage.

There are some approximate guidelines that can be given. For example, it generally takes anywhere from 3 to 7 days for your body to clear prescription opiates like oxycodone and fentanyl. Methadone, on the other hand, takes 5 days to be completely cleared from your system.

Each painkiller can come in two different forms: immediate-release and extended-release. Naturally, immediate-release pills will be removed from your body within a much quicker timeframe. It will take a longer time for your body to get rid of the compounds in extended-release pills. This is because the pills slowly release the active ingredients as time passes.

Although the parent drug may be cleared from your system, metabolites may linger behind. These metabolites are then detectable by various drug tests. Many employers use these drug tests to determine whether their employees are under the influence. Those who are not misusing the drug may need to provide proof using their prescription.

Factors that Affect How Long Painkillers Stay in Your System

In addition to the type of painkiller that is taken, there are many other factors that affect how long painkillers may stay in your system. Some factors include the individual's:

  • Age. Older patients usually have a slower metabolism, so they will clear the painkillers at a slower rate. Also, older patients are much more likely to struggle with kidney and liver problems. These problems may also affect how efficiently the active ingredients in the pain pills are removed from the body.
  • Body fat content. An individual's metabolic rate is proportionate to their measurements.
  • Genetics. Certain genetic variants are believed to aid in the removal of certain chemical compounds from the body.
  • Health. Liver and kidney health is fundamental in getting rid of painkillers from the body. Also, those who struggle with other conditions and diseases may take medications that make it harder for the body to clear the active ingredients in certain painkillers.
  • Metabolism. A faster metabolism will shorten the length of time needed to metabolize pain medications.

It's also important to note that your kidney and liver are the primary organs that break down the compounds found in painkillers. If these organs aren't healthy, they won't be functioning efficiently. This means that the pain meds may end up in your system for a longer period of time.

Popular Types of Painkillers

Painkillers are prescribed based on one's level of pain. Mild painkillers, known as non-opioids, are used to treat mild pain, while moderate to severe pain is treated with prescription opioids.

How Long Painkillers Stay in the System

Immediate-release painkillers are often prescribed first. They provide pain relief for short periods of time, and the dosage is easy to adjust. Once the dust settles, patients, who are still in pain, can move from immediate-release painkillers to extended-release painkillers. These painkillers have a longer effect on the body. 

There are plenty of different types of prescription painkillers. Some of the most popular pain medications that are frequently prescribed include:

  • Buprenorphine
  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone
  • Hydromorphone
  • Methadone
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone
  • Oxymorphone 

These drugs are particularly dangerous when mixed with alcohol. Both alcohol and prescription opioids can cause respiratory arrest and distress. When combined, the effects are magnified.

The Metabolic Pathway for Painkillers

Painkillers can be separated into three distinct categories. This includes: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), paracetamol and opioids. Each drug is cleared from the body in a different way, and will rely on its own metabolic pathway.

NSAIDs include drugs like ibuprofen and aspirin. These painkillers are easily accessible, and only certain types require a prescription. These pain pills block COX enzymes from sending pain signals to the central nervous system. The active compounds are broken down in the body by an enzyme called cytochrome P450. This enzyme can be found in many areas of the body, like in the brain and other organs.

Paracetamol, on the other hand, is metabolized in the liver. These pain medications are mostly broken down into sulphate and glucuronide conjugates. The metabolites are then excreted from the body via urine. These pain pills are easily removed from the body.

Prescription opioids are also metabolized in the liver. By entering the liver, they undergo a process known as first-pass metabolism. This reduces the bioavailability of the opioids, and its potency. Once the prescription opioids are metabolized, they are removed from the body through the urine.

In comparison to the other painkillers, the metabolic pathway for removing prescription opioids is a bit more complicated. There are two metabolic pathways.

The first pathway relies on the cytochrome P450 enzyme. The other metabolic pathway involves a process known as glucuronidation. To put it in layman’s terms, this pathway makes it much easier for the opioids to bind to water. Both pathways can be active at the same time although the first pathway usually kicks in first.

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Drug Detection Methods and Time for Various Painkillers

There is a range of drug tests available for prescription painkillers. Some are highly specific, and the results need to be tested at a laboratory. Other drug tests are much less specific, and can provide instantaneous results. These drug tests can tell you whether someone is positive for drugs within minutes.

Different types of painkillers can be detected in bodily fluids and hair for various durations of time. Some are detectable for weeks, whereas others only have a window of several days. The most common drug tests include:

  • Blood testing
  • Hair testing
  • Saliva testing
  • Sweat testing
  • Urine testing

Urine testing tends to be the most popular, as it is the most cost effective. It's also fairly reliable, and can provide instant results. This is ideal for spouses or parents who expect a family member of doing drugs.

Hair tests offer in-depth detail and information. They can essentially detect drug use for all types of painkillers for up to 90 days. When conducting a hair drug test, you’ll need to get a sample of 1.5 inches of new growth. Hair tests can tell you the type of drug that was taken, as well as when it was taken.

It’s also important to note that opiates will accumulate in fatty tissues if they are taken for extended periods of time. In these situations, the detection window will be much longer. This is because the fatty tissues will slowly release the active compounds in the opiates as time passes.

Hydrocodone contains both codeine and thebaine. It has a half-life of approximately 3.8 hours. The effects will also usually kick in within 30 minutes, and peak within 2 hours. 

Doctors and employers do not use blood or sweat drug tests to look for hydrocodone. The most popular options include saliva tests, which involve a quick swab of the inside of the mouth, and urine tests. In general, saliva tests can detect the presence of hydrocodone for up to 36 hours after the last pill was taken. Urine tests offer a longer detection window of approximately 2 to 4 days.

Vicodin has a half-life of around 4 hours. It is a short-acting opioid, so its effects will start to kick in within 30 minutes to an hour. The effects tend to peak after 2 hours, and will last anywhere from 4 to 8 hours depending on the dosage.

Whether Vicodin is detectable from a saliva test will depend on numerous factors, like the person's metabolic rate, age and body mass. The dosage taken will also factor into the final calculations.

Saliva tests can detect Vicodin for anywhere from 12 hours to 5 days. Urine tests can detect Vicodin for up to 4 days.

The biological half-life of morphine is about 2 to 3 hours. These pain meds can have an effect that lasts anywhere from 3 to 7 hours. This is a bit shorter than some of the other prescription opioids on the market.

With that said, some people will use a blood test to detect morphine. The detection window is quite short, as morphine can only be detected for up to 12 hours after the last dose. However, some laboratories claim that an accurate analysis has a detection window of only 6 hours. Urine tests can detect morphine for up to 3 days, and saliva tests can detect morphine for up to 4 days.

Unlike other prescription opioids, oxycodone usually comes in the form of an extended-release pill. This pill releases the drug into your system over the span of 12 hours. The extended-release drug has a half-life of about 4.5 hours, so it will take 7 to 8 hours for it to be cleared from the body.

Oxycodone is detectable in urine for up to 3 days. No other drug test is used to detect it. These drug tests usually look for morphine, which is a metabolite. However, oxycodone produces very little morphine. Due to this reason, it can be difficult to successfully test for low oxycodone use.

Understand How Painkillers Affect Your Body

If a doctor prescribes you painkillers, it's vital that you fully understand the risks before taking the drug. Ask the doctor how the painkillers will affect your body and health. It’s also a good idea to have a plan for weaning off of the drug.

While most painkillers are quite effective, they can also be quite addictive. Many people even graduate from painkillers to heroin once their supply gets cut off.

Here, at Ashwood Recovery, we offer a wide range of treatment programs and services. If you believe that you might be addicted or if you know someone who is addicted, contact us for help. We'll assess your situation to determine what the best course of action may be. We may recommend either residential treatment programs or intensive outpatient treatment programs, with a combination of therapies and counselling.

Don't deal with a painkiller addiction in secret. Talk to us, and we'll help you get sober in no time!

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