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Drug Withdrawal

Drug withdrawal symptoms can be physical or psychological, altering the way you feel, act and think. Some drugs, like heroin, alcohol and cocaine, cause strong physical dependence. With other chemical substances, like speed or hallucinogens, dependence is more likely to be psychological. Either way, withdrawal can take a big toll on your mind and body.

Withdrawal occurs when you’re deprived of a drug that your body or mind has grown to depend on. The type, intensity and duration of withdrawal symptoms vary from one user to another, but the experience is almost always hard to tolerate. With some drugs, like alcohol or benzodiazepines, withdrawal can be life-threatening if it isn’t medically supervised. Completing drug withdrawal in a safe, supervised environment may be easier and more effective than struggling to cope with symptoms like these alone:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Dysphoria (feeling down or depressed)
  • Cravings
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Muscle cramps
  • Seizures
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Chills

Learning about the effects of drug withdrawal may help you prepare for the process and start your journey of recovery. When you’re ready to stop drinking or using, don’t try to handle withdrawal symptoms without help. You can increase your chances of getting clean and staying clean by turning to addiction professionals for support.

*Medications for Drug Withdrawal

When you seek help through a medically supervised addiction treatment program, you may have access to medications that can help you cope with withdrawal symptoms:

  • Librium, Tranxene, Valium (for alcohol)
  • Methadone, buprenorphine (for heroin)
  • Buprenorphine (for narcotic drugs)
  • Clonidine (for narcotic drugs)
  • Haloperidol, propranolol (for cocaine)
  • Bupropion (for meth)
  • Gabapentin (for marijuana)

These drugs can relieve withdrawal symptoms either by replicating the effects of the drug at a lower intensity, or by treating symptoms like irritability, anxiety or seizures. Other drugs used in addiction treatment, like naltrexone and acamprosate, are specifically designed to reduce cravings and prevent relapse rather than relieving withdrawal symptoms.


Withdrawal may feel like it’s going to kill you, but in fact, withdrawing from most drugs isn’t life threatening. Alcohol is one of the few chemical substances that can produce deadly withdrawal symptoms. Most of these symptoms are associated with a condition called delirium tremens. Commonly known as the DTs, delirium tremens can have dangerous effects on your blood pressure, heart rate and breathing.

When a person who’s been drinking heavily for weeks, months or years suddenly stops using alcohol, he or she may experience seizures, severe dehydration, a rapid spike in blood pressure or unconsciousness, according to FamilyDoctor.org. Withdrawal symptoms may begin within five hours and can continue for days or even weeks. People who are going through alcohol withdrawal may also have fevers, hallucinations, heavy sweats and tremors. Alcohol withdrawal should be supervised by a doctor to ensure the safest outcome for the client.


Benzodiazepines, or benzos, are a class of drug that’s used to counteract anxiety, relieve muscle spasms and prevent seizures. Some of the most frequently prescribed benzodiazepines are Valium, Xanax and Ativan. When taken under medical supervision according to a doctor’s orders, benzos usually don’t produce fatal withdrawal symptoms if you try to quit. However, if you’re taking benzos without a prescription and you take more than the recommended dose, quitting cold turkey may cause seizures and convulsions.

Psychological symptoms of benzo withdrawal may include anxiety, panic attacks, sleep disturbances and hallucinations, according to Professor C.H. Ashton of the School of Neurosciences at the Royal Victoria Infirmary. Physical symptoms may include headaches, muscle spasms, bone pain, diarrhea, heart palpitations, numbness and tingling in the extremities. If you’ve been taking benzos without a doctor’s prescription to help you deal with anxiety, you may find that your anxiety gets much worse after you stop the medication. Abruptly quitting benzodiazepines can have severe effects on your mental health, causing depression and thoughts of suicide.

Benzos have a high potential for dependence and abuse. If you’ve become dependent on these powerful prescription drugs, the safest way to quit is to taper off the medication with a doctor’s supervision.


Many heroin users become physically dependent on this narcotic drug, which produces powerful sensations of euphoria. The severity of heroin withdrawal is one of the reasons that addicts find it so hard to quit. Withdrawal from heroin brings on overwhelming cravings for the drug, along with sweating, chills, goose bumps, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, muscle spasms, watery eyes and nasal congestion.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms may continue after the initial withdrawal phase. After having quit for several weeks or even several months, former heroin users may feel restless, anxious and edgy. Heroin withdrawal is rarely fatal, but the physical side effects and emotional repercussions of giving up this potent drug can be devastating.

Pharmacotherapy can be highly effective at combating heroin addiction and relieving the symptoms of withdrawal. Methadone and buprenorphine are often prescribed to help users survive the effects of heroin withdrawal. Medications like naltrexone may be prescribed to help block the effects of heroin on the brain, so that the addict no longer feels that euphoric rush after taking the drug.


Cocaine alters the way your brain processes dopamine, a neurotransmitter that creates feelings of pleasure and well-being. Cocaine is also a central nervous system stimulant that speeds up involuntary processes like your heartbeat and respiration. People who become dependent on coke find it hard to give up that rush of energy and heightened mental focus that the drug seems to bring. Dependent users who stop doing coke will experience a crash that envelops body and mind, causing feelings of fatigue, depression and intense cravings for the drug, notes the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Users who are withdrawing from cocaine may have strange, vivid dreams. They may feel ravenously hungry, agitated and edgy. They may also feel like their physical and mental functions have slowed down to an unbearable crawl. Withdrawing from cocaine may not be deadly, but the chances of a relapse are high if you don’t have the support you need to get through this difficult period.


Methamphetamine, or meth, is a psychoactive stimulant that makes life seem to move in fast-forward. After taking meth, you may experience a surge of elation caused by the sudden release of dopamine. Meth can make you feel more alert and awake, may help you lose weight and can even stimulate your libido. Meth also has the potential to make you psychologically dependent on the drug, so you feel that you can’t function normally without it.

After stopping meth, you may feel hungry, tired and depressed. Withdrawal from the drug often causes an emotional crash as your brain adjusts to the absence of the drug. For some users, meth withdrawal may cause severe anxiety and thoughts of suicide. Cravings for the drug are intense in the withdrawal stage, making the risk of relapse very high. Supervised treatment at a residential facility can give you the time and distance you need to recover from meth addiction.

*Could an Antidepressant Offer Hope for Meth Users?

The FDA has not yet approved any drug for the treatment of dependence on stimulants like meth, but a common antidepressant may offer hope for meth addicts. Bupropion, a medication marketed under the brand name Wellbutrin, has been used to treat depression and to help smokers give up tobacco. A study in Neuropsychopharmacology suggests that bupropion may also help meth addicts stay abstinent by preventing the drug from exerting its effects on the brain.

In the study, meth users in an addiction treatment program took bupropion twice a day while undergoing psychotherapy three times a week. This treatment plan helped users with low-to-moderate meth use achieve more abstinent days during the 12-week study period. Bupropion was not as effective at helping heavy meth users stay clean, however, which indicates that frequent meth use may affect the way the brain responds to pharmaceuticals.

From Withdrawal to Recovery

If statistics on substance abuse are any indication, the fear of drug withdrawal isn’t enough to prevent drug dependence in the United States. In a study of drug-related deaths in Florida during the years 2003 to 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in Florida alone:

  • 16,550 deaths were caused by a drug overdose
  • Up to eight people died of a drug overdose every day
  • 76.1 percent of overdose deaths involved prescription drugs
  • 33.9 percent of overdose deaths involved illegal street drugs

How many of these drug users would have survived if they’d made it through the process of withdrawal?

It’s no secret that the physical effects and psychological cravings of drug withdrawal can be a form of hell for a chemically dependent person. The quality of the best exclusive inpatient addiction treatment program can make a tremendous difference in an addict’s chances of success. If you’re committed to starting a healthy new life and you’re willing to accept help from qualified addiction specialists, you’re already ahead of the game. We can provide answers to your questions and solutions to the problem of drug addiction. Contact us today.

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