Dealing with illness while in recovery from addiction is no picnic, especially for newly sober individuals whose memories of using and drinking to numb and escape are still vivid.
In fact, the onset of cold- and flu-like symptoms is enough to trigger flashbacks to those in recovery from addiction, particularly individuals whose drugs of choice include opioids and to whom withdrawal symptoms are eerily similar. In its description of heroin withdrawal, the nonprofit organization Drug Policy Alliance describes it  as “a severe flu-like illness and the severity of the symptoms typically peaks at around 2-3 days.”
It’s little wonder, then, that this time of year can be particularly challenging. Addicts and alcoholics don’t like to feel discomfort — that’s one of the reasons they self-medicate with substances, in order to anesthetize physical, mental and emotional pain. Dealing with illness while in recovery from addiction can be challenging in that regard, but the good news is this: Colds and the flu will subside, and you’ll return to normal in a few days. In addiction, withdrawal returns every time you stop, and the agony of it only compounds the insatiable need to use again in order to make it go away, thus perpetuating the cycle.
How, then, can addicts and alcoholics get through times of illness in early recovery? Like most people — time, rest and, on occasion, with the aid of medical professionals. But it’s always comforting to know you’re not alone in feeling a twinge of panic at the thought of enduring such ailments. Fortunately, there are a number of factors you can take into consideration that may alleviate your suffering or at least prevent you from compounding it.
Dealing With Illness While in Recovery From Addiction: Be Grateful
It may sound ridiculous, but in a 2018 article for the recovery website The Fix, writer Christopher Dale makes an interesting point : “We might be the only category of people who function better with the flu; we may be stuffy, coughing and miserable … but at least we’re not drunk and high. We couldn’t breathe through our noses, but could at least catch our breaths against the onslaught of our progressive, incurable and unarrested disease.”
Dale goes on the detail how something as simple as a head cold can give us some much-needed pause to reevaluate whether our zealous pursuit of recovery might be causing some unnecessary angst. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t give recovery our best efforts; but when that dedication becomes “an arrogant type of ambition,” as he describes it, it can, in a way, set us up for disappointment: “I place expectations on how easy or brief a task should be and, when the Universe has differing plans, harbor resentment, grit my teeth and redouble my efforts to complete undertakings I've proclaimed oh-so-important.”
Illness, he points out, dulls the edge of both worry and ambition. Tasks that seem critical suddenly become not-such-a-big-deal, and we begin to understand that the world will go on just fine without our involvement. Yes, we may need all of the hours on our paycheck that we can get, but our places of employment won’t be forced to close if we call in sick. Our families won’t be driven to ruin if we order take-out instead of preparing a home-cooked meal. Our house won’t collapse in on itself if we choose to rest on the couch instead of sweeping the floors.
In sickness, Dale writes, “My body and brain instinctively conserve energy, limiting both concentration and concerns to the next right action. In sickness, there’s an early-sobriety, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other simplicity that is harder to harness in health.”
Dealing With Illness While in Recovery From Addiction: Self-Care
It’s easy to put the needs of others before our own, but illness is one area in which the inverse needs to be true. After all, if you’re not 100 percent, how can you give 100 percent to your job, to your family, to your recovery? Dealing with illness while in recovery from addiction necessitates making the decision to put yourself first, and you can do that by implementing some common sense methods of self-care, according to Dr. Al J. Mooney , one of the authors of The Recovery Book:
- Get plenty of rest;
- Drink plenty of fluids (water, fruit juices and sports drinks help keep you hydrated without overstimulating your body with caffeine);
- Breathe humid air — take long, hot showers daily and run a humidifier, because a 2009 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  found that “high absolute humidity can help kill flu virus particles in a given environment”;
- Keep your head elevated when sleeping and use saline only nasal spray to keep your sinus passages clear;
- Try home remedies first — a teaspoon of salt dissolved in warm water as a sore throat gargle, and lemon (3 tablespoons) mixed with honey (1 cup) and warm water (a quarter-cup) for a cough.
And, Mooney, points out, don’t be hesitant to seek medical attention if your symptoms persist and worsen. Addicts and alcoholics often have a fitful relationship with the medical community, and that can be cause for some anxiety — but it shouldn’t be.
So, When Should I Go to the Doctor?
After all, even the texts of various recovery programs discuss the possibility of taking medication while clean and sober. Alcoholics Anonymous, the “mother” fellowship of 12 Step programs, states in the pamphlet “The A.A. Member — Medications and Other Drugs”  that while “the misuse of prescription medication and other drugs can threaten the achievement and maintenance of sobriety,” “It becomes clear that just as it is wrong to enable or support any alcoholic to become re-addicted to any drug, it’s equally wrong to deprive any alcoholic of medication, which can alleviate or control other disabling physical and/or emotional problems.”
The Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet “In Times of Illness”  concurs: When we are confronted with a medical condition where we may have to take medication, our initial fear may be of taking too much, but we also may go to the other extreme. The urge to allow ourselves to suffer unnecessarily rather than take medication may be great. We resist this urge to stubbornly insist that we know better than the doctor, refuse all medications, or neglect problems that require medical attention … ignoring health problems because of fear or pride may, in fact, make matters worse for us.”
Both programs agree that the best advice for those who are dealing with illness while in recovery from addiction is this: trust others. That includes your sponsor and medical professionals. Just as that old recovery saw that “if you’re sponsoring yourself, you’re sponsoring a fool” applies in other areas of our lives, we can paraphrase it in regards to our health. We are not doctors, no matter how much “chemistry” or “medication management” we may have been involved in during our drug use.
That said, it’s critical to let health care providers know that you’re in recovery from addiction or alcoholism. That may make all the difference in their approach to treatment of colds, the flu, bronchitis and other common winter ailments, because they will (hopefully!) take that information into account when prescribing medication.
The bottom line is that seeking medical attention shouldn’t be avoided if your health is suffering. Talk to others in recovery whom you trust, communicate openly and honestly with your doctor and don’t try to treat yourself.
Dealing with Illness While in Recovery from Addiction: What NOT to Take
Sometimes, however, we just want some immediate relief — but we don’t have the money, or we don’t feel like we’re that sick, so we choose not to go to the doctor. Fair enough — there are, of course, a number of over-the-counter (OTC) remedies that can treat the symptoms of the cold and flu and bring us some temporary relief while our bodies heal themselves.
As in all things medication-related, however, it’s imperative that we pay attention to what we consume. Fortunately, much has been written about what we should avoid if we’re in recovery from addiction:
- Dextromethorphan (DXM), according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse : “A cough suppressant found in many OTC cold medicines. The most common sources of abused DXM are ‘extra-strength’ cough syrup, tablets and gel capsules.” According to the NIDA, DXM “is an opioid without effects on pain reduction and does not act on the opioid receptors. When taken in large doses, DXM causes a depressant effect and sometimes a hallucinogenic effect, similar to PCP and ketamine.” It can be habit-forming, and in some cases, addicts and alcoholics seeking drug and alcohol treatment present with DXM as one of the substances they’re abusing.
- Cough medicines containing alcohol: According to a blog post on the medical appointment booking platform Zocdoc , “Alcohol serves an important purpose in many over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications. It is used both as a solvent and a preservative. Obviously, medicines that come in liquid forms are the ones likely to contain alcohol.” While the volume can range anywhere from 1 percent to 25 percent alcohol, those who are dealing with illness while in recovery from addiction should seek out cough medications that are specifically marketed and labeled as “alcohol free.”
- Medications containing pseudoephedrine: According to the NIDA , pseudoephedrine is “a nasal decongestant found in many OTC cold medicines, can be used to make methamphetamine. For this reason, products containing pseudoephedrine are sold ‘behind the counter’ nationwide.” In other words, you’ll have to request it from the pharmacist, and the amount you purchase will be limited, but if you’re dealing with illness while in recovery from addiction, that shouldn’t be a problem, because you should avoid it anyway!
- Cough syrup with codeine: Another reason it’s important to let your doctor know you’re in recovery? Many common prescription-strength cough medications used to treat flu and bronchitis symptoms can contain codeine, which is derived from the opium poppy — the same plant that produces the active ingredient in heroin and morphine. Even if you take it as prescribed, individuals in early recovery can feel triggered by the effects, and letting your doctor know about your sobriety can help him or her find you an alternative that’s safer.
And Finally: Maintain Your Recovery
For those dealing with illness while in recovery from addiction, sickness is a time when they need to double down on their recovery programs. You may not feel well enough to attend a recovery meeting — and let’s face it, no one wants to share your germs, so you should probably not go if you’re ill — but there are still a number of things you can do to stay plugged in:
- Call your sponsor — daily, if necessary.
- Read your recovery literature.
- Call the men or women in your network.
- Above all, avoid isolation.
As Mooney points out , “There is a tendency to avoid recovery activities when a person is sick. Since sickness can make a person more vulnerable, meetings and other recovery activities can be even more important during times of illness … bedside meetings can also substitute for the scheduled ones, but remember to take the appropriate actions to prevent contagion.”
No one enjoys being sick, and for those who are just getting on their feet after getting clean and sober, it can bring up all sorts of memories and emotions. Illness, however, is something everyone faces at one time or another, and unlike the agony of withdrawal, you’ll feel “normal” within a few days without the all-consuming need to continue to drink or use.
While that knowledge certainly doesn’t make getting sick worth it, it can make it more bearable — and when our health is good and we’re not spending every waking moment pursuing ways and means to continue to drink and drug, we can take care of ourselves that limits the length of our illnesses or the number of times each winter we get sick.