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What Is Drug Withdrawal?
Drug withdrawal refers to the physical and psychological symptoms that occur when a person stops using drugs after a long period of drug or alcohol abuse.
Once someone becomes physically dependent on a substance, their brain, and other organs need time to readjust to functioning without it.
Most people who use drugs will experience some form of drug withdrawal when they stop taking them.
The severity of withdrawal symptoms will depend on various factors, such as:
- The type of drug used
- The length of use
- The amount of drugs used
- The individual’s overall health
In some cases, withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening, so you should always seek advice from your doctor or a healthcare provider before quitting alcohol or drugs.
Types of Drug Withdrawal Symptoms
Symptoms of drug withdrawal fall under two categories: acute and protracted.
Acute withdrawal typically occurs within the first few days of stopping drug use and can last up to two weeks.
Protracted withdrawal, on the other hand, can persist for weeks, months, or even years after cessation of drug use—and can involve a variety of emotional and psychological symptoms.
Acute withdrawal is the first detoxification phase, usually lasting one to two weeks. It occurs when a person suddenly stops using a drug or drinking alcohol after heavy use and is the most dangerous withdrawal period.
Acute withdrawal symptoms usually peak in intensity during the first 24 to 72 hours after the last use and gradually subside afterward.
These symptoms typically include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Insomnia/sleep problems
- Agitation (restlessness)
- Anxiety and irritability
- Weakness, fatigue, and muscle aches
- Increased heart rate/blood pressure
Protracted withdrawal, or post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), typically begins after the acute withdrawal phase subsides. Depending on the person’s history of substance abuse, PAWS can last from several weeks to a couple of years.
Protracted withdrawal is mainly associated with psychological symptoms as the brain recovers and tries to learn how to function without drugs.
These psychological symptoms include:
- Depression and anxiety
- Cognitive impairment and memory problems
- Difficulty sleeping
- Irritability and mood swings
- Decreased interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Intense craving for the substance
In severe cases, these symptoms may even cause suicidal thoughts and risk of relapse. Long-term drug treatment is vital to overcoming the psychological impacts of substance withdrawal.
With the right support, individuals can delve deep into the root of their drug problem and build the skills necessary to maintain sobriety.
Symptoms of Drug Withdrawal
The symptoms associated with withdrawal can vary greatly depending on the type of drug used and the length and intensity of its use.
Understanding these symptoms can help individuals prepare for and manage the withdrawal process with the support of medical professionals.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
When an individual abruptly stops or reduces their alcohol consumption, the brain struggles to readjust to the lack of alcohol’s sedating effects, causing a range of withdrawal symptoms.
Some common alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:
In severe cases, seizures, high blood pressure, and delirium tremens (a dangerous condition associated with confusion, tremors, and hallucinations) can also occur.
Nicotine Withdrawal Symptoms
When a person stops using nicotine, withdrawal symptoms occur due to a decrease of dopamine in the brain’s neurotransmitters.
Nicotine withdrawal can cause symptoms such as:
- Increased appetite
- Intense, persistent cravings for nicotine
- Difficulty concentrating
Overcoming nicotine withdrawal often requires a combination of behavioral therapy, medication (including patches or gum), and support from loved ones.
Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Symptoms
Benzodiazepines such as alprazolam (Xanax®) and diazepam (Valium®) can cause dependence after consistent use in just weeks.
Benzodiazepine withdrawal can cause symptoms such as:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Panic attacks
Withdrawal from benzodiazepines can be particularly dangerous, as the symptoms can be intense and even life-threatening without proper management.
Medical supervision and a gradual tapering process using diazepam are often necessary to ensure the safety of individuals during benzodiazepine withdrawal.
Stimulant Withdrawal Symptoms
Stimulants like cocaine, amphetamines, and methamphetamines can decrease the brain’s ability to effectively manage dopamine over time, eventually leading to imbalanced brain chemistry.
When a person stops using these drugs, dopamine levels can drop, leading to distressing withdrawal symptoms and intense cravings.
Other common symptoms of stimulant withdrawal can include:
- Body aches
- Sleep disturbances
Therapy, medication through benzodiazepines, and support groups can help individuals manage the side effects of stimulant withdrawal.
Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms
Opioids include many drugs, from heroin and fentanyl to oxycodone (Oxycontin®) and morphine.
Opioids activate the brain’s reward center and can quickly lead to dependence and addiction. Once a person stops taking opioids after developing a dependency, withdrawal symptoms occur.
The symptoms of opioid withdrawal typically include:
- Muscle aches
- Runny nose
- Rapid heart rate
Medications like methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone can help reduce the intensity of many opiate withdrawal symptoms and help individuals work toward recovery.
Cannabis Withdrawal Symptoms
When you consistently use cannabis (marijuana), your brain gets used to the large amounts of the drug. Eventually, your brain adjusts the production of its endocannabinoid neurotransmitters, leading to dependence.
The symptoms of cannabis withdrawal can include:
- Decreased appetite
- Physical discomfort
The intensity and duration of these symptoms can vary depending on the individual’s health and frequency of use.
Therapy, support groups, and lifestyle changes can help individuals manage the symptoms of cannabis withdrawal and overcome addiction.
Treatment for Drug Withdrawal Symptoms
Withdrawal from substance addiction can be challenging, but you don’t have to face it alone.
Treatment options are available to help you manage the physical and mental discomfort that comes with withdrawal.
Medical Detox for Withdrawal
During the process, a medical professional will be with you every step of the way—checking in on your physical and mental health, managing any withdrawal symptoms, and providing support as needed.
Your doctor may also prescribe medication to address specific symptoms to make the process bearable.
Medical detox is typically a short-term process—lasting anywhere from a few days to a week, depending on the substance and the severity of the addiction.
After medical detox, people often move on to attend either an inpatient or outpatient program. These programs help them work through the root causes of their addiction (psychological or behavioral) and develop the skills they need to stay sober.
Medications for Treating Withdrawal Symptoms
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), medications can be crucial in managing withdrawal symptoms and preventing relapse.
These medications reduce the severity of physical and mental symptoms, making it easier to overcome drug or alcohol dependence.
Some common medications used to treat withdrawal symptoms include:
Your doctor may also prescribe anticonvulsants or antidepressants to aid you during withdrawal.
It’s important to remember that these medications should only be used under the guidance of a medical professional, as misusing them can lead to serious health consequences.
Take the Brave Step Toward Recovery
Starting your journey to sobriety is a brave and life-changing decision. By putting down drugs, you’re taking control of your life and setting yourself on a path toward health and happiness.
If you’re seeking help for substance abuse, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) can assist you. Contact them at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or use their Treatment Locator at FindTreatment.gov to find treatment options near you.
With the right resources, commitment, and support, anyone can overcome substance abuse and reclaim their life.
FAQs About Drug Withdrawal
Are withdrawal symptoms dangerous?
Yes, withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous, especially for certain substances such as alcohol and benzodiazepines.
Withdrawals can result in high blood pressure, heart attack, seizures, and other potentially deadly side effects. It’s crucial to seek medical supervision during the withdrawal process to ensure the safe management of these symptoms.
Can you die from withdrawals?
Yes, in some cases, withdrawals can be life-threatening—particularly for people who have been using drugs like alcohol or benzodiazepines for a long period.
Suddenly stopping the use of these substances can cause severe withdrawal symptoms that can lead to dangerous health complications, such as seizures, high blood pressure, or delirium tremens.
How does withdrawal feel?
The severity and type of withdrawal symptoms depend on the substance used, how long it was used, and the individual’s overall health.
Some common withdrawal symptoms include:
- Muscle aches
- Intense cravings
Medications are available to help manage these withdrawal symptoms and avoid relapse
What is the difference between physical and psychological withdrawal?
Physical withdrawal refers to the physical symptoms individuals experience when they stop using a substance, such as sweating, muscle aches, and nausea.
Psychological withdrawal refers to the emotional and mental symptoms individuals experience, such as anxiety, depression, and drug cravings.
Withdrawal can cause both physical and psychological symptoms, and the severity of each type of symptom varies from person to person.
What are the most common symptoms of withdrawal?
Some common symptoms of withdrawal include:
- Muscle aches
- Drug cravings
Withdrawal from alcohol and benzodiazepines can cause seizures and other serious health complications. Medical supervision is strongly recommended when quitting these substances.