The symptoms of drug withdrawal, and the length of that withdrawal, vary depending on the drug of abuse and the length of the addiction. These are a few withdrawal symptoms and timelines for major targets of abuse:
In 2011, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) published that almost 25 million Americans over the age of 12, approaching 10 percent of this section of the population, had used an illicit drug in the month prior to the survey, classifying them as current drug users.Addictive drugs and alcohol make changes to the way the brain processes emotions and regulates mood. Many of these changes create a flood of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, which create an artificial feeling of pleasure, or a “high.”
Continued abuse of drugs or alcohol interferes with the motivation and reward chemistry and circuitry, resulting in drug cravings and dependence.
Once a dependence on a substance has formed, withdrawal symptoms will start when the substance is then removed. Different drugs and substances will have different withdrawal symptoms and timelines, depending on how they interact with the brain and body. Drugs are absorbed and remain active in the body for differing amounts of time. This is often referred to as the drug’s “half-life,”which relates to the different withdrawal timelines for each substance.
For example, someone who has regularly injected large doses of heroin for several years, with a family history of addiction and underlying mental health problems, is likely to experience a longer withdrawal period with potentially more powerful symptoms than someone who has used smaller dosages for a shorter period of time.
Opioid drugs increase feelings of pleasure while numbing symptoms of pain. These drugs include the illegal drug heroin and prescription opiates, such as OxyContin (oxycodone), Vicodin (hydrocodone and acetaminophen), morphine, codeine, Percocet (oxycodone and acetaminophen), and methadone.
Opiates are considered highly addictive, and in 2013, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that 517,000 people were classified with a heroin abuse disorder. An additional 1.8 million Americans suffered from an opioid use disorder involving prescription painkillers.
Opioid withdrawal produces both physical side effects that may mimic the flu and psychological symptoms, during two distinct phases, known as early and late withdrawal. Early on during opioid withdrawal, muscle aches, tearing, runny nose, yawning, insomnia, agitation, anxiety, and sweating are common, according to The New York Times. Later on, nausea and vomiting, chills or goose bumps, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and dilated pupils occur during late withdrawal.
Heroin has the shortest half-life of all opiates, at only a few minutes, per the Mayo Clinic. Therefore, it takes effect the quickest, but also leaves the body quickly, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA. To put it into perspective, OxyContin has a half-life of 3-4 hours for its immediate-release format and 12 hours for the extended-release form, while morphine has a half-life of 6-10 hours, the journal Clinical and Translational Oncology reports. While not technically considered to be life-threatening, opioid withdrawal can be dangerous and should be performed under medical supervision and guidance.
Benzodiazepines, often called “benzos” for short, make up a class of prescription drug used primarily to treat anxiety, panic disorders, and seizures. They may also be used as sleep aids or muscle relaxants. These drugs are considered central nervous system depressants that work to dampen the “fight or flight” reflex that may be hyperactive in someone suffering from heightened levels of anxiety or stress by activating the inhibitory neuron gamma amino-butyric acid, or GABA, which acts as a natural sedative.
When the brain is dependent on a benzo, if the drug is suddenly removed, a rebound effect can occur.
This is when the brain is trying to regain its state of balance as GABA levels potentially drop, opening the door to heightened levels of anxiety and insomnia in the early stage of withdrawal.
More serious side effects may also occur during benzo withdrawal, such as delirium, hallucinations, fever, and seizures. Benzodiazepine withdrawal can be life-threatening due to grand mal seizures that may result in coma or death in someone heavily dependent on benzodiazepines who stops taking them suddenly, the Journal of the Oklahoma State Medical Association states.
Anxiety and psychological withdrawal symptoms may continue for several month or even years in about 10 percent of those addicted to a benzodiazepine, ABC News reports. This is called “protracted withdrawal”and can be managed with therapy and mental health services.
Benzodiazepines are generally considered to be short-acting, intermediate-acting, or long-acting and the differing half-lives will dictate when withdrawal may start.
A short-acting benzo, for example, will have the shortest half-life and faster onset of withdrawal than a long-acting benzodiazepine. Short-acting benzodiazepines include Halcion (triazolam) and Serax (oxazepam). Ativan (lorazepam) and Xanax (alprazolam) are intermediate-acting, and Valium (diazepam), Klonopin (clonazepam), and Librium (chlordiazepoxide) are long-acting, per Primary Psychiatry. All three types of benzos produce similar withdrawal symptoms, and detox should be medically managed.
Stimulant withdrawal is unlike withdrawal from most other substances, as there is a lack of many physical symptoms. As a result, withdrawal from cocaine is not considered to be life-threatening. Drug cravings and emotional turmoil associated with withdrawal may be best treated by a mental health professional trained in substance abuse and dependency who can provide necessary psychological support and care during detox and throughout recovery.
According to data published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), about half of those with an alcohol use disorder will experience some form of alcohol withdrawal symptoms when alcohol use is cut down or eliminated. Between 3 and 5 percent will suffer from the most serious form of alcohol withdrawal: delirium tremens, or DTs. Seizures, fever, severe confusion, agitation, hallucinations, and delirium may signify DTs, which can be fatal without swift medical intervention.
Alcohol withdrawal is usually most intense in the first few days, with physical side effects typically tapering off in a few days to a week. The emotional effects and cravings for alcohol may continue for longer.
While alcohol withdrawal can start within the first few hours after the last drink, delirium tremens may not start for an additional few days, and appear suddenly, making alcohol withdrawal safest when monitored around the clock by a medical professional.
Addiction is a disease with many symptoms that may affect each individual person in a unique way. Withdrawal from any substance of abuse after a dependency has formed is best performed in a substance abuse treatment center that offers medical detox.
Medical detox means that medical professionals are on hand to ensure the individual’s personal safety by monitoring vital signs and emotional states. The initial goal of detox is to achieve a safe and comfortable level of physical stability so the psychological manifestations of withdrawal can be addressed. Someone addicted to alcohol, opioids, or benzodiazepines should always undergo medical detox to safely manage withdrawal with the fewest number of adverse consequences. Many times, these substances will need to be weaned out of the body slowly under the direction of a medical professional.
Medical detox may also use medications to help with the side effects of withdrawal. Buprenorphine products and methadone are supported by NIDA as effective treatments for opioid detox and dependency, for instance. Both buprenorphine and methadone are opioid agonists that activate opioid receptors in the brain. Buprenorphine is a partial agonist and only partially activates the receptors, lowering the potential for abuse. These drugs are long-lasting, meaning that they are effective for a longer period of time and in smaller doses, making them applicable in reducing withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings.
Naloxone, an opioid antagonist, is often added to buprenorphine products, like Suboxone and Zubsolv, in order to block opioid receptors from receiving other opioids. It usually lies dormant unless tampered with and injected. If these medications are abused, the naloxone may induce another form of opioid withdrawal called precipitated withdrawal, which is the rapid onset of more intense withdrawal symptoms. This may deter someone from attempting to abuse these medications or any other opioid agonists during detox and into recovery.
For someone addicted to benzodiazepines, a longer-acting benzodiazepine may be used during detox to control withdrawal and taper the drugs down slowly. Medications such as antidepressants or mood stabilizers may be used during medical detox from many addictive substances in order to target specific psychological symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, and panic. NIDA reports that the mild stimulant drug modafinil may help with cocaine withdrawal symptoms. Benzodiazepines are sometimes used to smooth out alcohol withdrawal and to help prevent seizures by calming the overactive nerves and neurons. Depending on the level of dependency and care needed, detox from illicit drugs may be done in either an outpatient or inpatient capacity. An assessment of physical and emotional symptoms should be first conducted by a trained professional in order to determine what level of care will produce the best results.
Different drugs have different withdrawal timelines and symptoms, and treatment should be tailored to the specific drug and its side effects. Mental health and medical issues can complicate withdrawal as can poly-drug abuse, and these issues should be considered during substance abuse treatment.
Residential, or inpatient, substance abuse treatment often provides the most comprehensive care, and medical detox is the optimal choice in helping to make withdrawal as smooth as possible for most addictive drugs.