Please note: The information given on this page is not medical advice and should not be relied upon in this way. The information is correct at the time of publication. People wanting medical advice on this issue should consult a health professional.
Buprenorphine (pronounced bew-pre-nor-feen) is available by prescription, under the name of Subutex®, as a treatment for heroin dependence.
It has been found to be effective in reducing the need to continue using heroin (buprenorphine maintenance) and also in helping people to withdraw from heroin and methadone. Buprenorphine is also prescribed to treat severe pain.
What does it look like?
Subutex® comes in tablet form.
How is it used?
Subutex® tablets are taken sublingually (placed under the tongue to dissolve). Chewing or swallowing the tablet will make it ineffective.
Treatment, including for heroin or other opioid dependency, is more likely to be successful if it is part of a comprehensive treatment program.
Often a range of factors contribute to an individual’s use of drugs. Thus, it is strongly recommended that those wanting to remain free of heroin engage in a treatment program that addresses the physical (the body), psychological (the mind) and environmental issues relating to the person’s drug use. This may involve combining several treatment approaches, such as buprenorphine maintenance, counselling, alternative or holistic therapies (such as massage and naturopathic treatment), and developing a positive support network including peers, family, friends and support groups.
As with any type of treatment or approach to heroin dependency, buprenorphine maintenance may be effective for some people but will not suit everyone. A doctor or drug counsellor who spends time assessing the person’s specific situation and explaining different options will recommend an approach that is appropriate for that individual.
Buprenorphine is one of a number of maintenance treatments for heroin dependence. Others include:
Advantages of buprenorphine maintenance treatment
There are many benefits of being on buprenorphine maintenance, when compared with continuing the use of heroin:
Similar to other opioids, the most common side effects are:
Other effects of buprenorphine use
Taking buprenorphine with other drugs
The effects of mixing buprenorphine with other drugs, including alcohol, prescription medications and over-the-counter medicines, are often unpredictable.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
It is dangerous to drive during the early stages of buprenorphine treatment or when the dose has been increased. The effects of buprenorphine, such as drowsiness and reduced reaction times, can affect driving ability. The symptoms of coming down and withdrawal can also affect a person’s ability to drive safely.
Buprenorphine use in the workplace
Under occupational health and safety legislation, all employees have a responsibility to make sure they look after their own and their co-workers’ safety. The effects of buprenorphine drowsiness and reduced reaction times can affect a person’s ability to work safely and effectively.
Preventing and reducing harms
Injecting Subutex is dangerous, and can lead to severe vein damage, blood clots and other health complications.
Withdrawal from long-term use of buprenorphine may produce symptoms similar to those experienced from heroin withdrawal. However, withdrawal symptoms tend to be milder with buprenorphine than those from methadone and other opioids.
Withdrawal symptoms vary from person to person, but may include:
In Australia, there are many different types of treatments for drug problems. Some aim to help a person to stop using a drug, while others aim to reduce the risks and harm related to their drug use. Find out more about treatment.
What to do if you are concerned about someone’s illicit use of buprenorphine
If you are concerned about someone’s drug use, there is help available. Contact the alcohol and drug information service in your state or territory.
What to do in a crisis
Always call triple zero (000) if a drug overdose is known or suspected—and remember that paramedics are not obliged to involve the police.
Australia’s national drug policy is based on harm minimisation. Strategies to minimise harm include encouraging people to avoid using a drug through to helping people to reduce the risk of harm if they do use a drug. It aims to reduce all types of drug-related harm to both the individual and the community.