Drug Withdrawal: Symptoms, Causes, & Timelines
Drugs and alcohol can have powerful effects on the mind and body, particularly after long-term use. As a result, a person who regularly uses large amounts of drugs or alcohol may experience withdrawal symptoms when they attempt to stop or reduce their substance use. Read on to learn more about the various symptoms, causes, and timelines of substance withdrawal, and how to get help if you or someone you know has lost control of their drug or alcohol use.
What Is Drug Withdrawal?
Drug withdrawal refers to symptoms that occur when an individual who is physiologically dependent on a drug attempts to stop or significantly reduce their drug use. These symptoms can range from mildly uncomfortable to severe and painful, and, in rare cases, may be life-threatening. Specific withdrawal symptoms, duration, and severity vary widely depending on the substance and how long it was used, as well as other individual factors.1,2
Oftentimes, a person will continue to compulsively use drugs or alcohol to avoid unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal. This pattern may be a sign of addiction or put a person at risk of developing an addiction.2
The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”3
What Causes Drug Withdrawal?
Withdrawal symptoms are the result of dependence, which is the body’s normal physiological adaptation to the sustained presence of a substance. A person who develops dependence may feel like they need the drug to think and function normally. The body has become so accustomed to the drug being present that withdrawal symptoms emerge if they stop or significantly cut back on their use.1,2
What Drugs Cause Withdrawal Symptoms?
Certain commonly used substances have well-known withdrawal syndromes. Substances that may cause withdrawal symptoms as a result of physiological dependence include:1
- Benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and other CNS depressants and sedatives.
- Heroin and prescription opioids.
- Cocaine, methamphetamine, and other stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin.
What Are the Symptoms of Drug Withdrawal?
The withdrawal symptoms for different drugs vary greatly depending on the type of substance, as well as the duration a substance is used and dosage. Withdrawal symptoms can be mental or physical disturbances, are generally very uncomfortable, and, in rare cases, may be severe and even dangerous.1,2
The human body tries to maintain a constant state of homeostasis by regulating various physiological processes to keep internal states steady and balanced. When a substance that affects this balance is consumed regularly, the body adjusts and compensates accordingly. When the presence of this drug is suddenly removed or reduced, the body can’t restore its equilibrium quickly enough and goes into withdrawal.4
As a result, withdrawal symptoms are typically the opposite of what a person experiences while under the influence of the drug. For example, stimulant intoxication causes euphoria and increased feelings of energy, while stimulant withdrawal can lead to fatigue and depression.5 Conversely, sedative intoxication is characterized by feelings of relaxation and pleasure, while sedative withdrawal results in an overexcited nervous system, which can manifest as anxiety and insomnia.1
How Long Do Drug Withdrawal Symptoms Last?
Drug and alcohol withdrawal can last anywhere from several days to weeks, and in some cases, certain symptoms may linger a bit longer.1 The length of withdrawal varies greatly depending on many different factors.
Factors that may affect the withdrawal timeline include:4
- The type of substance.
- Duration of use.
- Quantity of use.
- Other drugs or medications being taken.
- Individual characteristics, including a person’s mental and physical health.
Acute withdrawal symptoms typically begin within a few hours or days after a person’s last use and resolve within 1 to 2 weeks.6
Milder symptoms that continue beyond the timeframe of acute withdrawal symptoms are sometimes called “prolonged withdrawal” or “protracted abstinence” symptoms. These symptoms may include problems with sleep and motivation, trouble with concentration and memory, depression and anxiety, low libido, and drug cravings.5,6
Protracted withdrawal symptoms can persist for several months or, in rare cases, years. They tend to wax and wane over time. Some people may experience these symptoms, while others may not.6
Is Drug & Alcohol Withdrawal Dangerous?
No, drug and alcohol withdrawal is generally not dangerous, but there are instances where severe withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening and even fatal. Certain substances are associated with potentially more severe withdrawal syndromes than others, including alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opioids.1
Some medical conditions can also increase the risk of severe and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Those at increased risk of medical complications or experiencing potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms can typically benefit from professional medically managed detox.1
For example, withdrawal from alcohol or sedatives like benzodiazepines can cause symptoms like seizures or a potentially fatal condition known as delirium tremens (a constellation of symptoms that includes hallucinations, fever, extreme confusion, high blood pressure, and seizures).1
Although withdrawal from stimulants like cocaine, methamphetamine, and amphetamines does not usually cause dangerous medical problems, some people may experience severe depression that can include suicidal thoughts and ideation.1
Another concern is the increased risk of relapse during and after opioid withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms from opioids can include intense drug cravings. If a person returns to opioid use after a period of abstinence, there is a greater likelihood of overdose, because a person’s tolerance lowers quickly during abstinence. The person may be unaware of their lower tolerance and assume they can consume the same dose. When they do, they may unintentionally overdose.7
How to Detox From Drugs or Alcohol Safely
Drug and alcohol withdrawal can be uncomfortable, but it can also be safely managed while minimizing complications. Medical detox is a form of addiction treatment that helps people come off drugs and alcohol safely by providing around-the-clock care, observation, and support, as the body rids itself of drugs and alcohol.1
Depending on a patient’s needs and the substance they took, medical staff may prescribe medications to treat withdrawal symptoms or help reduce cravings. Patients are also encouraged to attend group and private therapy sessions to better understand the disease of addiction and begin the recovery process.1
An important function of medical detox programs is to pave the way for more comprehensive, in-depth drug rehab treatment. Once detox is complete, patients start to tackle the root of their addiction and develop skills that help sustain long-term recovery. This may involve transitioning to another level of addiction treatment, such as an inpatient or outpatient rehab program.
Laguna Treatment Hospital is an inpatient rehab facility in Orange County, California. At Laguna, we offer medically supervised detox and residential treatment. Our treatment plans incorporate a range of evidenced-based therapies and specialized treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders.
Our staff provides a safe and comfortable detox experience using close monitoring and medications for addiction treatment (as needed and determined by a patient’s treatment team). Additionally, select beds are equipped with EarlySense technology, a cutting-edge and FDA-approved monitoring system that tracks patient vital signs and alerts staff to any real-time changes.
At our Orange County addiction treatment facility, we believe everyone should have access to treatment, so we aim to make it affordable by offering financing options and other ways to pay for rehab. We are also in-network with many different health insurance plans. You can quickly confirm your insurance coverage by filling out this simple and secure .