Withdrawal is a necessary part of the recovery process, but it’s often misunderstood.
Knowing what to expect and how to proceed safely can help you begin treatment with confidence.
The term withdrawal is used to refer to the symptoms that someone experiences when a substance they’ve become physically dependent on is leaving the body. Common symptoms of withdrawal include:
- Watery eyes
- Runny nose
- Shaking hands
- Mood changes
Withdrawal occurs with alcohol and illegal street drugs, as well as prescription medication. In fact, someone can experience symptoms when withdrawing from medication even if the pills were taken exactly as prescribed.
The length of time someone experiences withdrawal symptoms depends on their overall physical health as well as the severity of the addiction and the substance being abused. Generally, discomfort peaks within the first 24 to 48 hours. Then, symptoms will decrease in intensity as the body adjusts to operating without the presence of the addictive substance. Exercise, rest, and good nutrition combined with ongoing counseling can help manage symptoms and provide the foundation necessary for continued sobriety.
Risks Associated with Withdrawal
In most cases, withdrawal is merely uncomfortable and not a serious threat to one’s health. However, withdrawal can cause fatal seizures, strokes, or heart attacks when the person is abusing:
- Opioids including both heroin and prescription pain relievers such as OxyContin (Oxycodone) or Vicodin (Hydrocodone)
- Benzodiazepines such as Xanax (alprazolam), Ativan (lorazepam), or Valium (diazepam)
Certain circumstances can increase the risk of dangerous complications. These include having multiple addictions, suffering from other medical conditions, or being pregnant.
- The risk of deadly complications greatly increases when someone is abusing more than one substance because of interactions between the substances as they leave the body.
- Medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease can complicate the withdrawal process. Mental health disorders can also cause problems, since they can increase the severity of psychological symptoms associated with withdrawal. In some cases, the discomfort of withdrawal combined with a mental health disorder can lead to thoughts of suicide or self-harm.
- Women who are pregnant are at risk because both the mother and the fetus can experience withdrawal symptoms. Miscarriage risks rise significantly with opioid withdrawal during pregnancy, which is why methadone maintenance treatment is the only recommended course of action for a pregnant woman who is addicted to heroin or other opioids.
Going through the withdrawal process also drastically lowers a person’s tolerance for the substance that was being abused. This means that the risk of an accidental overdose is increased if the person goes back to using after experiencing withdrawal.
How Medical Detox Helps
Obviously, continuing to abuse drugs and alcohol can be fatal as well. Addiction causes significant damage to the brain, liver, kidneys, heart, and digestive system in addition to suppressing natural immunity. Fatal overdoses are also a consideration.
The risk of complications during withdrawal should not deter you from seeking treatment for a substance use disorder. However, it is important to enlist professional help. You should never try to go through withdrawal on your own.
Even if you do not believe you are at risk of deadly complications, the minor symptoms of withdrawal can cause more serious problems if supervision is not provided. For example:
- Vomiting can cause stomach contents to enter the lungs, a serious and life-threatening condition known as aspiration.
- Prolonged diarrhea, vomiting, and sweating can lead to severe dehydration.
- Dehydration, vomiting, and a general loss of appetite can result in malnutrition and potentially dangerous rapid weight loss.
- Mood changes and insomnia can impair your ability to make rational decisions about the level of care that you need, preventing you from seeking help in an emergency.
A medical detox helps manage the risks associated with withdrawal by providing someone who can slowly wean the person off addictive substances, monitor vital signs 24/7, and administer any necessary medical interventions. This also helps to keep the person more comfortable, since care providers can offer medications such as Ativan to patients withdrawing from alcohol to ease delirium tremens (DTs) or methadone to a patient withdrawing from heroin to help regulate neurological pathways.
The protocol for a medical detox is different for each patient, taking into account any factors that could complicate the process. However, providing a safe, comfortable, and supportive environment always remains a top priority.