Substance Use

Drug Withdrawal Overview

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Drug Withdrawal Symptoms, Timeline & Detox Treatment Options

“The mentality and behavior of drug addicts and alcoholics is wholly irrational until you understand that they completely powerless over their addiction and unless they have structured help, they have no hope.”

Russell Brand

If you have tried to overcome an addiction in the past or are ready to take back control of your life, you know how swiftly drug withdrawal symptoms appear. The thought alone is enough to continue using. At that time, it seems like there is only one option — secure your next dose. It’s easy to get caught in this cycle, but luckily, it’s not the only option. 

If you’re ready to begin your road to recovery, know that the drug withdrawal process is a small window in time. Once you overcome this first hurdle, you can then start to heal. Ongoing support and treatment will set you up for success. 

This guide covers everything you need to know about the drug withdrawal process, what symptoms you need to be aware of, how long this process lasts, and how to get the help you or your loved one deserves. 

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What Is Drug Withdrawal?

When you cease to take an addictive drug that you have become dependent on, withdrawal symptoms surface. This is known as withdrawal syndrome. This means that drug withdrawal is a physiological (and psychological) response to the sudden cessation of a substance your body depends on. 

The research indicates that withdrawal from drugs and alcohol is a common (yet pressing) medical problem. The type of symptoms you’ll experience will depend on the substance of abuse, duration of use, frequency, and dosage. These symptoms develop because your body attempts to reach a new state of balance during the drug withdrawal process because it aims to maintain homeostasis constantly.

When you remove a chemical that your body is used to getting, unopposed effects may result in alcohol or drug withdrawal symptoms. For example, when you consume alcohol for one to three months or consume large quantities for at least seven to ten days, you will experience a withdrawal response within 6 to 24 hours after cessation of alcohol. These symptoms are relieved when you consume more alcohol. However, this remedy is only a short-term solution. 

The constant need to continue consuming alcohol (or using the drug of your choice) is why the cycle of addiction is so vicious. For some, certain substances of abuse can also be very dangerous. Withdrawal symptoms, such as seizures, can be life-threatening. Each person is unique concerning drug withdrawal, which is why it’s so important to seek the support of a professional care team.

If you have a pre-existing health condition, abuse multiple substances, or would simply like to complete the drug withdrawal process in a safe and comfortable environment, the support of a substance abuse and mental health facility like Zinnia Health is essential. 

Drug Withdrawal vs. Detox

The terms withdrawal and detox are often used interchangeably — and while they are closely connected, there are some distinct differences. For example, withdrawal syndrome encompasses the symptoms you experience when you discontinue using a certain addictive substance you have developed a dependency on. 

Detoxification is the process your body goes through to eliminate the drug, which in turn causes you to experience withdrawal syndrome. In the medical model, detoxification refers to the use of clinical and nursing staff to administer medication that will safely assist addicts through withdrawal. There is also a social model that rejects medication-assisted detox. Instead, this model focuses on a supportive environment to ease withdrawal symptoms. Today, the most common detoxification programs will combine the medical model and social model.

So, think of detox as the process of clearing your body of drugs or alcohol. During this process, your withdrawal symptoms should be monitored to ensure a safe and comfortable detoxification process. 

Drug withdrawal and detox also differ concerning their timelines. It may take your body four days to physically detox from a drug, but withdrawal symptoms can continue for weeks beyond that. When there are complications during the detox process, your body reacts to the process, which is why withdrawal symptoms develop. For example, if you have a seizure because your body is detoxifying from alcohol, the seizure is a specific withdrawal symptom.

What Causes Drug Withdrawal Symptoms?

The most basic cause of drug withdrawal symptoms is when you have used a drug over a prolonged period and then stop taking it. However, how that process works and the factors involved is much more complex. 

To experience drug withdrawal symptoms, you first build a tolerance to a substance, followed by physical dependence. There are often psychological variables to consider too. The human brain is the most complex organ in the human body, so developing drug withdrawal syndrome is incredibly complicated. There are also some variables that scientists don’t quite fully understand. 

To better understand this syndrome, you must first understand how drugs work in the brain. When you take drugs, whether it be a stimulant or opioid, the substance will interfere with the way your brain’s neurons send, receive, and process signals. For example, when you use heroin or marijuana, these substances mimic natural brain chemicals, which allows them to activate specific neurons. 

In other cases, such as when you take cocaine or amphetamine, your neurons release large amounts of brain chemicals or prevent the normal recycling of brain chemicals. 

So, in that sense, how drug withdrawal symptoms develop depends on each drug’s mechanism of action — different substances of abuse influence different brain areas and varying brain chemicals. For example, alcohol mainly influences the brain chemicals GABA and glutamate. An imbalance occurs following cessation with continued use, leading to withdrawal syndrome. Dopamine is another brain chemical heavily involved in addiction, influencing the brain’s reward system and drug cravings. 

What Are the Symptoms of Drug Withdrawal?

When experiencing withdrawal syndrome, the symptoms you experience will depend on many factors — mainly the substance(s) you have been using. The severity of those symptoms will depend on how long you’ve been abusing certain drugs and at what doses. 

For example, there are many opioids, many of which are initially prescribed for pain. Whether you are taking heroin or hydrocodone, the symptoms of opioid withdrawal syndrome are often likened to a very bad flu and include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea 
  • Muscle cramps and body aches 
  • Sweating 
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Anxiety
  • Hot flashes

Although the above symptoms are not typically life-threatening, complications can develop because of pre-existing health conditions, including mental health conditions. There is also a concern of severe dehydration, which can worsen symptoms. 

In comparison, when you’re dependent on benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, Valium, or Ativan, you can experience the following withdrawal symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability 
  • Sweating 
  • Increased heart rate 
  • Poor sleep 
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

In this case, symptoms can progress into more serious situations that require medical intervention

Whether you’re withdrawing from cocaine or meth, there are some overlapping symptoms. One of the withdrawal symptoms that most drugs have in common is anxiety. If you’re someone who has an anxiety disorder and began using drugs to help curb symptoms, your anxiety levels can be overwhelming throughout the withdrawal period.

That is why experts recommend supportive, professional care. As you complete the withdrawal process, you will have access to the therapy you need to manage your symptoms better and continue on your road to recovery. For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy has been shown to be highly effective in treating anxiety disorders. 

The goal is to find a treatment facility that treats you based on a holistic approach. Dual-diagnosis programs are vital to those suffering from addiction and mental health disorders. 

Substances That Cause Withdrawal Symptoms

Any substance that leads to a physical (or psychological) dependence will cause withdrawal symptoms after you stop taking it. For example, coffee (caffeine) is technically an addictive substance. If you’re someone who has drunk 1-2 cups every day for years and then suddenly stops, you may experience headaches, fatigue, and irritability. 

Caffeine is an example of a substance that creates withdrawal symptoms. However, drugs of abuse often cause withdrawal symptoms that are painful or even dangerous. These symptoms often act as a barrier, stopping addicts from seeking the help they need to overcome their addiction. 

Substances that cause withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Central nervous system depressants, including alcohol, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and opioids
  • Central nervous stimulants, such as cocaine, amphetamines, and methamphetamine
  • Marijuana 
  • Nicotine 

Physical withdrawal symptoms are often uncomfortable and can be fatal under certain conditions. These symptoms result from physical dependence. However, it’s important to note that addiction does not necessarily require physical dependence. In some cases, individuals become psychologically dependent on a substance. Psychological dependence is commonly reported among marijuana users

Risks vs. Benefits of Drug Withdrawal

Fearing the drug withdrawal process is normal, especially if you have tried to overcome an addiction in the past. No one wants to be physically uncomfortable, in pain, or experience psychological distress. However, going through the withdrawal process is necessary to achieve long-term sobriety. 

The key is to balance the risks and benefits of drug withdrawal in a way that ensures a safe, comfortable process. This balance is possible when you work with a professional substance abuse and mental health team. Any of the risks that may be life-threatening can be addressed in a structured, controlled environment.

When you are being constantly monitored, symptoms will be assessed and addressed. In some cases, medications are involved, whereas other symptoms will dampen with the help of therapy. 

The Risks of Drug Withdrawal

It’s crucial to be aware of drug withdrawal’s potential risk factors, particularly when you attempt to detox unsupervised. Certain substances, such as alcohol and benzodiazepines, can lead to severe symptoms. In some cases, the symptoms can even be lethal. For example, delirium tremens is a dangerous symptom. If not managed, you can experience a seizure, and for some, this progression is fatal. 

Opioid withdrawal symptoms are not typically lethal. However, they are highly uncomfortable and even painful. In this case, a major risk of drug withdrawal is relapse. Users may attempt to overcome their addiction, only to hit a wall once withdrawal symptoms develop. The danger here is that the longer you use, the greater the risk you’ll suffer from severe consequences associated with drug abuse, including an overdose. 

When you partner with a professional treatment facility, you can significantly reduce your risk of complications. 

The Benefits of Drug Withdrawal

The primary benefit of drug withdrawal is that it’s the first step towards sobriety. 

You will experience the greatest benefits from this process when you make withdrawal management a priority, with a core focus on the recovery process. Once you overcome this initial hurdle, you can work toward a healthier, more fulfilling future. Being drug-free means your health will improve, you’ll build more meaningful relationships, your mental health will improve, and the list goes on. 


When to Contact a Medical Professional

You will benefit from greater focus and clarity following the drug withdrawal process. When this clarity is paired with a support team and individualized treatment plan, you can achieve long-term sobriety and improve your mental health. 

In most cases, drug withdrawal symptoms will last for less than two weeks. However, this timeline can be highly uncomfortable, even painful, or life-threatening. As your body eliminates the drug, you experience physical symptoms, but psychological symptoms can last longer. These symptoms are what’s known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS).

PAWS can last for weeks, even months. Symptoms associated with this syndrome are similar to those found in mood and anxiety disorders, such as heightened anxiety, insomnia, and mood swings. This syndrome is most commonly experienced among those recovering from an opioid, alcohol, or benzodiazepine addiction. For example, it’s estimated that as many as 90% of recovering opioid users experience this syndrome to some degree. PAWS is just one reason why ongoing support from a professional team is so essential for long-term sobriety.

The drug withdrawal process is the first step towards the rest of your life. Reach out to an expert substance abuse and mental health facility today. 

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