Suboxone vs Methadone
These two medications are both approved by the FDA for the treatment of opioid use disorder. Which is right for you?
What is the difference between Suboxone and methadone?
Methadone and Suboxone (buprenorphine/naloxone) are both FDA-approved medications used to treat opioid use disorder. Methadone has been used as a treatment for addiction since the 1960s. Buprenorphine has been available in addiction treatment since the early 2000s. Both have a strong body of research demonstrating that they decrease illicit opioid use, overdose deaths, and other use-related complications.
Methadone is a full opioid agonist, while buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist. This means they affect people differently, and some people may respond better to one than the other. Both are classified as controlled substances, but in most states methadone is more strictly controlled than Suboxone.
Suboxone (buprenorphine/naloxone) FAQs
Suboxone is the brand name for an FDA-approved medication (buprenorphine/naloxone) used to treat opioid addiction. This medication is endorsed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration as the preferred method of treatment for opioid addiction treatment.
Suboxone helps to alleviate the brain’s dependence on opioids, like heroin, fentanyl, and other prescription pain relievers, while also reducing withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Suboxone is part of a group of interventions called medication-assisted treatment used to treat opioid use disorder.
How does Suboxone work?
Suboxone is a medication used to sustain recovery from opioid use disorder. It is called a partial opioid agonist, meaning it works in a similar way to opioids by binding to opioid receptors in the brain which causes limited pleasurable effects to stop withdrawal symptoms. However, it won’t provide the “high” associated with opioids like heroin. Suboxone also contains naloxone (known by the brand name Narcan), which is an opioid antagonist meaning it blocks opioid receptors, preventing misuse.
Bottom line, Suboxone:
- Helps alleviate withdrawal symptoms
- Reduces cravings for opioids
- Prevents misuse of Suboxone and/or other opioids
- Decreases the risk of relapse
Like other medication-assisted treatments, Suboxone is often prescribed alongside behavioral therapy, which has been found to be most effective in the treatment of opioid addiction. You can read more about the science of Suboxone in our Health Guides.
Do I have to stop using opioids to take Suboxone?
Yes. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, you will need to prepare for your first dose of medication-assisted treatment containing buprenorphine. This means stopping using opioids for a specified amount of time before you take Suboxone in order to prevent unpleasant side effects. That time period depends on whether the opioid you have been taking is a short-acting or long-acting opioid. Generally speaking, short-acting opioids like Percocet, heroin, and Vicodin should be ceased 12-24 hours before your first dose. Longer-acting opioids, like morphine, methadone, and Oxycontin are generally discontinued 36-48 hours before your first dose of Suboxone.
The key is checking in with an experienced physician licensed to prescribe this medication, who can advise you of the appropriate time frame based on your unique medical history.
What are the side effects of Suboxone?
Like with any medication, some people experience side effects when taking Suboxone. These may subside over time. Common side effects include:
- numbness in the mouth
- mouth redness
- numbness or tingling
- sleep problems
- stomach pain
- difficulty concentrating
- mouth pain
What form does Suboxone come in?
Suboxone is a sublingual film. It is important to allow the medication to fully dissolve under the tongue or against the cheek (not chewing or swallowing) in order to receive the full dosage, as buprenorphine is not absorbed well in the stomach or intestines.
Why is there naloxone in Suboxone?
You may have heard of naloxone under the brand name Narcan. Narcan and other naloxone-only formulations are life-saving medications that can reverse an opioid overdose almost instantly. This means that if someone has too much of an opiate in their system, naloxone will bind more strongly to those receptors, knocking them free and reversing a potentially fatal overdose.
As mentioned above, Suboxone is taken sublingually (placed under the tongue and allowed to dissolve). This is because buprenorphine is absorbed really well under the tongue. Naloxone, however, does not absorb well sublingually. When you take Suboxone as prescribed, the naloxone is essentially doing nothing. It is only is Suboxone is taken inappropriately that naloxone will kick in, blocking an illicit high or overdose. This makes Suboxone less likely to be diverted or misused.
Methadone is the oldest medicine approved by the FDA to treat opioid use disorder. Despite some lingering stigma, when it is taken as prescribed, methadone is safe and effective. Methadone helps individuals achieve and sustain long-term recovery.
How does methadone work?
Methadone is a long-acting opioid agonist. It occupies and activates the opioid receptors in the brain, but does so more slowly than other opioids. In this way, therapeutic doses of methadone usually don’t produce a euphoric effect, or the “high” that fuels the dangerous using cycle of illicit opiates. Methadone reduces cravings and withdrawal symptoms, and blunts the effects of opioids.
Bottom line, methadone:
- Helps reduce withdrawal symptoms
- Lessens cravings for opioids
- Decreases the risk of relapse
Do I have to stop using opioids to take methadone?
You should stop taking opioids if you are using methadone treatment. Combining the two can create a sedative effect and respiratory depression, which can be dangerous. Talk to your doctor if you take other opioids while you’re receiving methadone.
What are the side effects of methadone?
As with other medications, some people experience side effects when taking methadone. These may subside over time. Common side effects include:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Slow breathing
- Itchy skin
- Heavy sweating
- Sexual problems
What form does methadone come in?
Methadone comes in several forms. Taken daily for opioid use disorder, it is available in liquid, powder, and pill forms. It is usually taken once per day.
Transitioning from methadone to Suboxone
If you want to switch from methadone to buprenorphine, most doctors recommend that you taper down to as low a dose as possible before making the switch—at least 30 milligrams. Experts have noted that some patients may need to taper to an even lower dose. This can be frustrating for patients on high doses of methadone because tapering comfortably can take several months to a year (or longer) depending on your dose and how well you tolerate the decrease. But it’s important to be patient with this process. Trying to decrease your dose too quickly will only increase your likelihood of relapse, and cause you unnecessary discomfort.
Do not attempt to switch from methadone to buprenorphine without medical guidance.
When you reach a low enough dose of methadone, your clinician will guide you in inducting on a low dose of Suboxone. When using this method, your provider will direct you to take your (low) beginning dose, wait one hour to see how you tolerate it, and then take your next dose at the same amount if there are no side effects. This process is important, because there may still be enough methadone in your system to trigger precipitated withdrawal. The small dose of buprenorphine will limit the intensity of these effects.
Are Suboxone and methadone compatible with telehealth?
Suboxone treatment is available via telehealth. Clinicians must be licensed and trained through the DEA to prescribe buprenorphine/naloxone, but they can do so via telehealth after a thorough virtual evaluation. Most states also require drug testing, which can be done virtually. The medication itself is e-prescribed to a local pharmacy.
Traditionally, methadone must be taken at approved clinics (called Opioid Treatment Programs) where patients go in every day to receive their dose. With the advent of COVID-19, some states loosened restrictions to allow people to receive a month’s supply of methadone at a time and to be prescribed via telehealth. It is not apparent whether these lighter restrictions will remain or will spread across the nation post-pandemic. Workit Health does not prescribe methadone.
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Has my opioid use become a problem?
Take our opioid self-assessment to check on your use. This tool should not be used as a replacement for a clinical diagnosis.
Opioid Use Self-Assessment Quiz
Take our opioid self-assessment to check on your use and find out if Workit Health is right for you. This screening tool is a self-evaluation adapted from the DSM screening tool, and is designed as a self-assessment of opioid use.