The Clinical Opiate Withdrawal Scale (COWS)

J Psychoactive Drugs. 2003 Apr-Jun;35(2):253-9. doi: 10.1080/02791072.2003.10400007.


The clinical opiate withdrawal scale (COWS) is a clinician-administered, pen and paper instrument that rates eleven common opiate withdrawal signs or symptoms. The summed score of the eleven items can be used to assess a patient's level of opiate withdrawal and to make inferences about their level of physical dependence on opioids. With increasing use of opioids for treatment of pain and the availability of sublingual buprenorphine in the United States for treatment of opioid dependence, clinical assessment of opiate withdrawal intensity has received renewed interest. Buprenorphine, a partial opiate agonist at the mu receptor, can precipitate opiate withdrawal in patients with a high level of opioid dependence who are not experiencing opioid withdrawal. Since development of the first opiate withdrawal scale in the mid-1930s, many different opioid withdrawal scales have been used in clinical and research settings. This article reviews the history of opiate withdrawal scales and the context of their initial use. A template version of the COWS that can be copied and used clinically is appended. PDF formatted versions of the COWS are also available from the websites of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the California Society of Addiction Medicine, the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, and

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Mental Status Schedule / statistics & numerical data
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / psychology
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / diagnosis*
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / psychology