Drug withdrawal includes both emotional and physical symptoms that range from mild to life-threatening, depending on the drug and the level of physical dependence.
While specific symptoms vary according to the drug of abuse, common physical withdrawal symptoms include nausea, sweating, achiness, fatigue, and sleep issues. Common emotional withdrawal symptoms include depression, irritability, and anxiety.
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Drug Withdrawal Symptoms
More than 20 million people in the United States struggle with drug addiction. One of the common side effects of addiction is drug dependence and withdrawal symptoms when use of the drug is decreased or stopped.
Dependence can also occur with the legitimate medical use of a substance. It can happen with any repeated use of a drug that interacts with brain chemistry.
Mind-altering drugs change the chemical makeup of your brain. With regular use, the brain gets used to the way the drugs work in the system, and structural changes can occur. If you suddenly stop taking a drug that you’ve been taking regularly, withdrawal symptoms can kick in.
Withdrawal symptoms can be psychological and physical, and they can range greatly in intensity and duration. Typical physical side effects can include the following:
- Muscle aches
- Insomnia and sleep disturbances
- Chills and/or sweating
- Heart rate and blood pressure irregularities
- Stomach pain and cramps
- Problems with coordination and balance
- Drug cravings
Emotional drug withdrawal symptoms commonly include the following:
- Trouble feeling pleasure
- Memory issues
- Concentration and thinking problems
More significant drug withdrawal symptoms include seizures, delirium, hallucinations, paranoia, panic attacks, violent outbursts, aggression, and possible suicidal ideations.
Withdrawal From Different Drugs
Different classes of drugs will have variable withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal from some drugs is more significant and dangerous than withdrawal from other types.
- Opioids: Opioid drugs include prescription pain relievers containing oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and codeine as well as illicit drugs like heroin and illegally synthesized fentanyl.
Opioid withdrawal usually is not considered life-threatening, but it can be very intense. Physical symptoms are similar to a really bad case of the flu. Psychological withdrawal symptoms are also significant and can make it difficult to stop taking an opioid drug without help. Medical detox is recommended.
- Stimulants: Cocaine, methamphetamine, and prescription medications containing amphetamines, such as those to treat ADHD like Adderall and Ritalin, are stimulant drugs.
- These drugs are very habit-forming and can have significant emotional withdrawal symptoms.
Cravings, depression, fatigue, and sleep problems are common signs of stimulant drug withdrawal. Relapse, possible suicidal thoughts and actions, and significant mood swings are additional risks.
- Benzodiazepines and sedatives: Benzodiazepine drugs are sedative and hypnotic medications prescribed to treat anxiety, panic, and sleep disorders. These medications are central nervous system depressants, much in the same way that alcohol is.
When dependence on a sedative, or central nervous system depressant, is a factor, withdrawal symptoms can be physically and psychologically intense. These medications are not intended to be stopped suddenly after you’ve been taking them for a while for this reason. Medical detox is recommended.
- All life-sustaining functions that are slowed down by these medications, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature, can rebound when they are stopped. This can potentially lead to life-threatening issues, including seizures.
- Marijuana: Marijana is often thought to be nonaddictive, but you can develop a dependence on the drug after regular use and then suffer from withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking it. Side effects of marijuana withdrawal are not generally considered dangerous, but irritability, mood swings, sleep and appetite disturbances, focus and attention issues, and physical discomfort can be uncomfortable.
The duration and intensity of withdrawal are often directly tied to the significance of the drug dependence. This is related to how much, how often, and how long you’ve been taking the drug. The way the drug is used can make a difference, too.
Generally, medicinal use of a drug will lead to less severe withdrawal symptoms than recreational use. Injecting, snorting, and smoking drugs can increase the risk for more intense withdrawal symptoms and associated risks.
Biological factors, such as metabolism and genetic influencers like personal or family history of addiction, factor into levels of drug dependence, and the severity of withdrawal. Medical and mental health issues can also impact the intensity of drug withdrawal. High levels of stress can play a role.
Generally speaking, withdrawal symptoms start when the drug wears off. Withdrawal often has three main phases: early withdrawal, acute withdrawal, and protracted withdrawal.
Early withdrawal symptoms can start within a few hours to a day or so after the last dose of the drug. General unease and physical discomfort are common signs of early withdrawal.
Acute withdrawal includes the bulk of the withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms often peak within two to five days and can last one to two weeks. After the peak of acute withdrawal, symptoms will start to ease and taper off.
Mood swings, sleep issues, drug cravings, and concentration problems can continue for a few weeks or even months, in the case of protracted withdrawal.
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Withdrawal will need to be managed differently, depending on its intensity and the drug involved. If the level of drug dependence is significant, a medical detox program is optimal.
Medical detox may involve medications along with therapeutic and supportive care to mitigate withdrawal symptoms and keep you safe. Vital signs can be continuously monitored, and you’ll receive 24-hour support to prevent relapse.
Milder withdrawal may be controlled through outpatient measures. Benzodiazepines and opioids, which can trigger significant withdrawal symptoms, often need to be tapered off slowly and weaned out of the body in a controlled manner to minimize risks.
If you have struggled with high-dose or long-term addiction, medical detox is generally recommended regardless of the drug of abuse. Withdrawal from opioids, benzodiazepines, and alcohol always necessitates medical detox.
Detox on its own is not enough to address addiction. It must be followed by comprehensive therapy to achieve recovery.
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