What Are The Dangers of Withdrawal & Detox?
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), there are two types of withdrawal: acute withdrawal and protracted withdrawal.
Acute withdrawal is the initial emergence of symptoms after suddenly discontinuing the use of a substance. These symptoms tend to be opposite of the effects of the substance, making them different between substances.
SAMHSA’s article “Protracted Withdrawal” from the publication Substance Abuse Treatment Advisory lists the length of the acute withdrawal period for various substances:
- Alcohol: 5-7 days
- Benzodiazepines: 1-4 weeks, or 3-5 weeks if reducing dosage gradually
- Cannabis: 5 days
- Nicotine: 2-4 weeks
- Opioids: 4-10 days; methadone may be 14-21 days
- Stimulants: 1-2 weeks
Symptoms that last beyond this period, or reappear after this period, are then labeled as protracted withdrawal (commonly known as post-acute withdrawal, chronic withdrawal, or extended withdrawal). Protracted withdrawal is the lesser studied of the two types of withdrawal, but it can often be a major factor in the incidence of relapse.
Symptoms of Acute Withdrawal for Various Substances
Though symptoms of acute withdrawal will differ between substances, it is generally known that these symptoms will be opposite the effect of the substance. Withdrawal symptoms are often dangerous for individuals, and they are best managed by medical professionals. The symptoms of acute withdrawal for various substances are as follows:
- Anxiety and tremors
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Delirium tremens (in less than 5 percent of individuals)
- Double or blurry vision
- Body pains
- Nausea and diarrhea
- Disorientation and dizziness
- Dry mouth
- Fever or chills
- Decreased muscular control
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of appetite
- Anxiety and tension
- Night sweats
- Nightmares or strange dreams
- Irritability and irrational rage
- Weight gain
- Muscle aches
- Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Fever or chills
- Runny nose
- Teary eyes
- Increased appetite
- Slow thoughts
- Slow, or lack of, movement
During the acute withdrawal phase, medication may be prescribed to assist with withdrawal symptoms, though this is not always the case. It is recommended that this phase be overseen by a medical professional, especially in cases of severe addiction, or these symptoms can become dangerous. In cases of alcohol, benzo, or opiate detox, medical detox is always required.
Take Our Substance Abuse Self-Assessment
Take our free, 5-minute substance abuse self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with substance abuse. The evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are intended to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of a substance use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.
Symptoms of Protracted Withdrawal
The majority of the symptoms of protracted withdrawal are psychological in nature, due to the fact that long-term substance abuse can alter the brain in various ways. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addictive substances stimulate the reward circuit in the brain, causing a flow of feel-good chemicals, like dopamine, to users.
In the early stages of addiction, using a substance causes overstimulation of the system or an overproduction of dopamine, which results in euphoria or feeling “high”. However, over time, the brain can lose its ability to produce such chemicals on its own, resulting in a shortage. Individuals who struggle with addiction will find that they require more of a substance to achieve the same feeling, or to experience pleasure at all, due to the reliance of the brain on the substance.
It is these alterations in the brain that produce protracted withdrawal, or post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). Long-term aftereffects of substance abuse, according to SAMHSA, can include any of the following:
- Anxiety and irritability
- Difficulty focusing on tasks, concentrating, and making decisions
- Reduced enjoyment of previously pleasurable activities (anhedonia)
- Problems with sleep and increased fatigue
- Reduced libido
- Substance cravings
- Impaired executive control
- Physical symptoms that are otherwise unexplainable
These symptoms make individuals particularly vulnerable to relapse due to their increased duration. Some of these symptoms can several months, some a year, and some several years. Often, when transitioning from inpatient recovery to outpatient recovery, it can be helpful to create a plan for the first few days following discharge, in the event that such symptoms occur. Individuals should not attempt to overburden or overstress themselves immediately, as this can exacerbate PAWS symptoms and increase the desire for relapse.
Other ways to combat PAWS symptoms include developing a new system of positive coping mechanisms, exercising regularly, and joining recovery groups.
There are many resources for those in recovery, especially those suffering from post-acute withdrawal syndrome.
Though the process of withdrawal can be difficult, symptoms do eventually subside, and there is plenty of support offered for individuals going through recovery. While chances of relapse can increase during withdrawal phases, there are healthy mechanisms that can assist with symptoms and foster overall wellbeing.