What Is Drug Withdrawal? (2023)


Withdrawal is the combination of physical and mental effects a person experiences after they stop using or reduce their intake of a substance such as alcohol and prescription or recreational drugs.

If you have been using a substance with a high potential for dependency and you stop suddenly or abruptly or you cut down your use drastically, you can experience a variety of withdrawal symptoms. The intensity and duration of these withdrawal symptoms can vary widely, depending on the type of drug and your biological make-up.

Withdrawal can be unpleasant and potentially dangerous in some cases. For this reason, you should always talk to your doctor before stopping or reducing your substance use.

Symptoms of Withdrawal

What does it feel like to go through withdrawal? Withdrawal symptoms vary depending on the type of drug you were taking. Some symptoms commonly associated with withdrawal include:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in mood
  • Chills or shivering
  • Congestion
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Muscle pain
  • Nausea
  • Restlessness
  • Runny nose
  • Shakiness
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Vomiting

In some instances, more severe symptoms such as hallucinations, seizures, and delirium may also occur.The type of drug you were taking, the amount of time you were taking it, and the dosage you were taking can all affect the type and severity of the symptoms you experience.

While the physical symptoms of withdrawal might last only a few days or a week, the psychological withdrawal, such as depression or dysphoria, can last much longer.

Identifying Withdrawal

People may recognize symptoms of withdrawal when they stop taking or cut back on a substance. Missing your usual morning cup of coffee, for example, might result in symptoms of caffeine withdrawal such as fatigue, headache, and irritability.

Symptoms of withdrawal are an indication of dependence on a substance. You should talk to your doctor before you reduce or stop taking a medication or drug for advice on how to do so safely and minimize potential withdrawal symptoms. Your doctor may be able to help if you are having trouble managing your symptoms and provide medical supervision to ensure your safety as you detox from a substance.

Your doctor will also be able to determine if the symptoms you are experiencing are due to withdrawal or if they are the result of another condition.

Causes of Withdrawal

The body and brain work to maintain a state of balance known as homeostasis. Taking a substance changes that balance, so your body has to take steps to adjust including changing the levels of certain neurotransmitters. These substances act on your brain's reward system, triggering the release of chemicals.

When you regularly take a substance for a period of time, your body may build a tolerance and dependence on that substance. Tolerance means that it takes larger doses of the substance to achieve the same effects that you initially experienced, while dependence means that your body requires the substance in order to avoid experiencing withdrawal effects.

(Video) Drug Withdrawal Symptoms and How to Manage It During Detox

If you abruptly stop or decrease your intake of the substance, your body is once again thrown off balance and symptoms of withdrawal may result. Such symptoms are often both physical and mental, and can potentially be dangerous depending on the type of drug.

Withdrawal symptoms are often the opposite of the effects of the substance. For example, alcohol is a depressant, so if you suddenly stop consuming alcohol, you might experience symptoms of overstimulation such as anxiety or restlessness.

Types of Withdrawal

The specific withdrawal symptoms you experience depends on the type of drug you were taking. There are a number of different drug types that can result in withdrawal, including the following:

  • Antidepressants
  • Barbiturates
  • Cannabis
  • Depressants
  • Hallucinogens
  • Inhalants
  • Opioids
  • Stimulants

The following are some examples of specific substances that may lead to withdrawal and the expected duration of those symptoms:

  • Alcohol: Not everyone who stops drinking alcohol has withdrawal symptoms, but most people who quit suddenly after drinking enough alcohol for any length of time can experience a wide range of symptoms. Many times those symptoms will trigger a relapse.
  • Heroin: Those who have become addicted to heroin experience some particularly intense withdrawal symptoms, but even the worst of those symptoms will subside in five to seven days. However, for some, post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) can last for weeks or even months.
  • Marijuana: Compared to alcohol and other drugs, the withdrawal symptoms some marijuana users experience when they try to quit are on the mild side. But, some of those symptoms are unpleasant enough for some that they decide to go back to using the drug.
  • Nicotine: Not everyone experiences all of the same symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. As many who smoke know, symptom of nicotine withdrawal can make it difficult to give up cigarettes. There are steps you can take to reduce those symptoms, too.
  • OxyContin (oxycodone): The severity of OxyContin and other prescription opioid withdrawal symptoms is usually related to how long you have taken the medication and how much you took. If you took the painkiller only as directed, you may not experience any withdrawal symptoms at all, or very mild ones.

Treatment of Withdrawal

Treatment for withdrawal includes support, care, and medications that can ease symptoms and prevent possible complications.

With some substances, people are able to stop their use abruptly and manage their withdrawal symptoms on their own. For example, a person may be able to quit caffeine without assistance and cope with the unpleasant symptoms on their own until they pass.

But abruptly quitting substances such as benzodiazepines or alcohol can be potentially dangerous, so always consult your doctor to come up with a detox plan. Medically-assisted withdrawal can ensure that you are safe and help to minimize unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal Medications

The medications your doctor may prescribe to help alleviate symptoms of withdrawal will vary depending on the type of substance you were taking. Some medications that are used to treat various types of withdrawal include:

  • Catapres (clonidine)
  • Librium (chlordiazepoxide)
  • Buprenex (buprenorphine)
  • Valium (diazepam)
  • Ativan (lorazepam)
  • Methadone

Other medications may also be used to manage specific withdrawal symptoms. These may include anti-anxiety medications, anticonvulsants, antipsychotics, or other drugs designed to treat nausea or sleep problems.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in most cases, the symptoms associated with drug withdrawal are easily treated with medications that reduce or eliminate the discomfort. But, treating withdrawal is not the same as treating the dependence or addiction itself.

Coping With Withdrawal

In addition to seeking medical support, there are also things that you can do that may help you feel better as you go through the withdrawal process:

  • Ask for help. Whether you are handling withdrawal on your own or under the supervision of a doctor, it is important to have social support. Tell a trusted friend or family member so that they can check-in and support you during the process.
  • Eat well. Focus on eating nutritious, well-balanced meals. Eating fried, fatty, or sugary foods may make you feel worse.
  • Exercise. Try to get some physical activity each day. Stretching, walking, swimming, or other activities may help boost your mood.
  • Drink plenty of water. It is important to stay hydrated as you are going through withdrawal, especially if you are experiencing flu-like symptoms such as nausea and vomiting.
  • Relieve symptoms with over the counter (OTC) medications. Use appropriate OTC medications at the recommended dosages if you are experiencing symptoms such as headache, upset stomach, or diarrhea.
  • Sleep. While withdrawal can sometimes lead to sleeping difficulties, try to get an adequate amount of rest. Work to establish a regular sleep schedule and practice good sleep habits.

Stress management activities such as yoga and meditation may also help you cope with your withdrawal experience. Be sure to reach out to your doctor, however, if you are struggling to cope or if you experience any worrisome symptoms.

Supporting a Loved One During Withdrawal

It can be difficult for both of you when your loved one is going through withdrawal. Withdrawal can be physically and emotionally taxing, and your loved one will need all the support they can get.

(Video) The science of opioid withdrawal

Explore Treatment Options

One of the best things you can do is explore treatment options together. This way, you can better understand what withdrawal entails and the best course of action. Withdrawal can be different for everyone, so finding a treatment plan that will work for your loved one is crucial. Your loved one may need assistance during withdrawal, which may involve outpatient, residential, or inpatient options.

Care for Yourself

When caring for someone else, it is essential to ensure that you also care for yourself. This can be difficult and draining, so make sure to take care of yourself physically and emotionally. This can involve taking time for yourself, ensuring you are attending to your needs, and checking in with yourself often. This way, you will be in the best possible position to support your loved one.

Be There for Them

One of the most important things you can do is simply be there for your loved one during this difficult time. Just by being present and available, you can provide them with great support. This can involve listening to them, being a shoulder to cry on, and providing a comforting presence. Sometimes, just having someone there who cares can make all the difference.

Offer Practical Help

Withdrawal can often accompany physical symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Your loved one might need help with practical tasks like preparing meals, going to the bathroom, and getting around. If possible, offer to help with these tasks so your loved one can focus on healing.

When to Seek Medical Help

Severe and potentially life-threatening symptoms can sometimes accompany withdrawal. If your loved one is experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to seek medical help immediately:

  • Delusions
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Hallucinations
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Tremors or seizures

If you are ever unsure whether your loved one needs medical attention, err on the side of caution and seek help.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

How to Feel Better During Withdrawal

5 Sources

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.

  2. World Health Organization. Withdrawal state.

  3. Hosztafi S. [Heroin addiction]. Acta Pharm Hung. 2011;81(4):173-83.

  4. Smokefree.gov. Understanding Withdrawal. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, and National Cancer Institute.

  5. Ackermann K. Understanding OxyContin Withdrawal Symptoms & Timeline. American Addiction Center.

(Video) Recognizing Withdrawal in the Waiting Room

By Buddy T
Buddy Tis an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.

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How does addiction affect the brain? ›

Instead of a simple, pleasurable surge of dopamine, many drugs of abuse—such as opioids, cocaine, or nicotine—cause dopamine to flood the reward pathway, 10 times more than a natural reward. The brain remembers this surge and associates it with the addictive substance.

Which of the following is considered as the most effective treatment for substance abuse? ›

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a one-on-one therapy during which you meet privately with a therapist over a period of time. It's often considered the most effective therapy for drug and alcohol use disorders.

What does an alcoholic seizure look like? ›

This is characterised by hallucinations, tremors, fever, rapid heartbeat and respiratory depression. Medical attention throughout the entire process of alcohol withdrawal is vital in cases of delirium tremens. For most individuals, alcohol seizures are isolated events which clear up if they stop drinking.

What are the warning signs of drug abuse? ›

Psychological warning signs of drug abuse
  • Unexplained change in personality or attitude.
  • Sudden mood swings, irritability, spaced-out, or angry outbursts.
  • Appears fearful, anxious, or paranoid, with no reason.

How long does it take for brain chemistry to return to normal? ›

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, know this – the brain can heal from the aftermath of chemical dependency. Experts suggest 90 days as a general estimate for rewiring the brain, but everyone is different.

What is the first step in treating drug addiction? ›

The real first step in treating addiction is when the individual admits that they have a problem and opens up to seeking treatment for the addiction. For this to happen, they have to realize a motivation for getting sober, understand that they have an addiction, and be willing to work for sobriety.

What is the best solution for addiction? ›

10 Ways ANYONE Can Stop Addiction Now
  • Admit There Is A Problem. The hardest part to recovery is admitting you have an addiction. ...
  • Reflect On Your Addiction. ...
  • Seek Professional Support. ...
  • Appreciate The Benefits of Sobriety. ...
  • Identify Your Triggers. ...
  • Change Your Environment. ...
  • Exercise. ...
  • Accept The Past.

How do you help a person who has an addiction? ›

Here are seven tips that family and friends can reference to support an addicted family member or friend.
  1. Tip #1: Educate Yourself. ...
  2. Tip #2: Get Support. ...
  3. Tip #3: Get Counseling. ...
  4. Tip #4: Seek Specialty Help. ...
  5. Tip #5: Don't Enable. ...
  6. Tip #6: Have Realistic Expectations. ...
  7. Tip #7: Take Care of Yourself.

What drugs cause seizures? ›

Drugs That Can Cause Seizures
  • Cocaine.
  • Amphetamines.
  • Methamphetamine.
  • MDMA.
  • Opioids.
  • Opiates.
  • Marijuana.
  • CBD.
Oct 17, 2021

How do I know if I had a withdrawal seizure? ›

Symptoms of DTs include: Sudden and severe changes in your mental or nervous system. Uncontrollable tremors. Extreme confusion, hallucinations, and confusion.

How long do withdrawal seizures last? ›

They can last up to 6 d. The appearance of acute symptomatic seizures may emerge 6–48 h after the last drink. 19 Delirium tremens (DT, onset 48–72 h after cessation of drinking) represents characteristics of severe withdrawal that may last for up to 2 weeks (late withdrawal).

What are the six major characteristics of addictive behavior? ›

The addiction components model operationally defines addictive activity as any behavior that features what I believe are the six core components of addiction (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict, and relapse) (Griffiths, 2005).

What are the 5 signs of addiction? ›

The psychological signs of drug addiction may include but are not limited to:
  • Anxiousness.
  • Inattentiveness.
  • Lack of motivation.
  • Irritability or angry outbursts.
  • Changes in personality or attitude.
  • Emotional and mental withdrawing from people.
  • Sudden mood swings.
  • Unexplained paranoia.

What is the role of withdrawal in maintaining a drug addiction? ›

The classical theory of addiction posits that dependence results in withdrawal symptoms due to absence of drug in the system, and withdrawal symptoms, in turn, motivate a return to drug use (Figure 1).

How long does it take to regain dopamine? ›

These factors may vary by person but generally involve how long it may take to restore dopamine levels to normal and natural levels. Typically, it takes about 90 days to notice a difference with experiences of pleasure and dopamine levels.

How do I know if my dopamine levels are low? ›

Symptoms of dopamine deficiency (low dopamine levels) may include:
  1. You lack motivation, “the drive.”
  2. You're tired.
  3. You can't concentrate.
  4. You're moody or anxious.
  5. You don't feel pleasure from previously enjoyable experiences.
  6. You're depressed; you feel hopeless.
  7. You have a low sex drive.
Mar 23, 2022

What supplements repair dopamine receptors? ›

Along with eating a balanced diet, many possible supplements may help boost dopamine levels, including probiotics, fish oil, vitamin D, magnesium, ginkgo and ginseng. This, in turn, could help improve brain function and mental health.

What is the first rule of recovery? ›

Rule 1: Change Your Life

The most important rule of recovery is that a person does not achieve recovery by just not using. Recovery involves creating a new life in which it is easier to not use.

What are three steps you can take to stay away from drugs? ›

Tips for Staying Drug-Free
  • Learn to Set SMART Goals. ...
  • Build Habits to Stay Busy. ...
  • Sweat it out. ...
  • Cut out toxic relationships. ...
  • Utilize support systems. ...
  • Practice positive self talk. ...
  • Adopt a pet. ...
  • Walk away from stress.

What is a drug that slows the brain? ›

Examples of central nervous system depressants are benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and certain sleep medicines. Central nervous system depressants are sometimes called sedatives or tranquilizers. Also called CNS depressant.

What are the personality traits of an addict? ›

6 Personality Traits Linked to Addiction
  • Impulsivity. Impulsive people are often viewed as fun to be around due to their spontaneous nature, but this personality trait has a serious dark side. ...
  • Nonconformity. ...
  • Anxiety. ...
  • Low Tolerance for Stress. ...
  • Sensation Seeking. ...
  • Blame Shifting.
Sep 13, 2017

What not to say to someone who has an addiction? ›

What Not to Say to Someone Struggling With Addiction
  • I Know What You're Going Through. ...
  • You'll Never Change. ...
  • Why Can't You Just Stop? ...
  • If You Don't Change, I'm Done. ...
  • I'm Ashamed of You. ...
  • Get Help for Your Family Member or Friend.
Jan 24, 2020

What do you say to someone who is addicted to drugs? ›

Be clear in what you want to communicate to them, and don't hesitate to bring up your own feelings about the situation—in a calm way. In fact, saying how you feel is often a good starting point. Tell your loved one how it hurts and worries you to see them addicted to drugs and how you fear for their safety.

What to say to someone who is struggling to stay sober? ›

8 Things to Say to Someone in Recovery
  • I Love You. ...
  • You're Not Alone. ...
  • Everyone Needs Help Sometimes. ...
  • How Are You Feeling? ...
  • How Can I Help? ...
  • Let's Hang Out. ...
  • I'm Proud of You. ...
  • I Know You Are Struggling, But There's Always Hope.
May 29, 2019

Can stopping drugs cause seizures? ›

Seizures can be the result of substance use or the withdrawal of substances like alcohol. For those with epilepsy, it is important to not allow substance use to interfere with medication schedule as even skipping one dose can increase the risk of having a seizure.

Can drugs cause heart attacks? ›

Drugs More Likely to Cause a Heart Attack. In general, cardiac arrest increases for those who take drugs like cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and opioids. Alcohol is also a significant risk factor. This list isn't comprehensive, but these are some of the most frequently used drugs associated with causing cardiac arrest.

Can drugs cause a stroke? ›

The most commonly abused drugs, including cocaine, amphetamines and heroin, have been associated with an increased risk of stroke. Strokes caused by drug abuse often occur in a younger population. Steer clear of potentially addicting substances and see a doctor if you need support to overcome substance abuse.

What are 4 of the withdrawal symptoms? ›

Severe withdrawal symptoms, especially for drugs and alcohol, can include: paranoia. confusion.
Symptoms can include:
  • not being able to sleep.
  • irritability.
  • changing moods.
  • depression.
  • anxiety.
  • aches and pains.
  • cravings.
  • tiredness.

How do I know if my brain is having a seizure? ›

A staring spell. Uncontrollable jerking movements of the arms and legs. Loss of consciousness or awareness. Cognitive or emotional symptoms, such as fear, anxiety or deja vu.

When do withdrawal symptoms begin for central nervous system? ›

Central Nervous System Depressant Withdrawal

Withdrawal symptoms typically begin 12 to 24 hours after the last dose of the drug and are most severe between 24 and 72 hours after this dose.

Can you have a seizure in your sleep? ›

Some people with epilepsy have 'asleep seizures' (sometimes called 'nocturnal seizures'), that happen when they are asleep, as they are falling asleep or as they are waking up. Frontal lobe epilepsy is a type of epilepsy where seizures can commonly happen during periods of NREM sleep as well as when awake.

Do seizures reset your brain? ›

Epileptic seizures reset the excessive pathological entrainment occurring minutes prior to their onset and appear to play a homeostatic role of restoring the balance between synchronization and desynchronization of brain dynamics [9].

How often do withdrawal seizures happen? ›

4 How often do seizures occur related to withdrawal of alcohol use? Between 2% and 5% of alcoholics experience withdrawal seizures, which are usually generalized. These seizures typically occur within 48 hours of the last drink but may occur at any time within the first week of withdrawal.

What part of the brain does addiction affect the most? ›

Most PET studies of drug addiction have concentrated on the brain dopamine (DA) system, since this is considered to be the neurotransmitter system through which most drugs of abuse exert their reinforcing effects (5).

What part of the brain is involved in addiction? ›

Addictions center around alterations in the brain's mesolimbic dopamine pathway, also known as the reward circuit, which begins in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) above the brain stem.

What are some mental consequences of addiction? ›

Substance abuse and mental health are linked because the psychological effects of drug addiction, including alcohol, cause changes in your body and brain.
4. Depression
  • Hopelessness.
  • Lack of motivation.
  • Dysregulated emotion.
  • Loss of interest.
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Irritability.
  • Weight gain or loss.
  • Suicidal ideation.
Aug 8, 2022

Are the brains of addicts different? ›

Many addicts inherit a brain that has trouble just saying no to drugs. A study in Science finds that cocaine addicts have abnormalities in areas of the brain involved in self-control. And these abnormalities appear to predate any drug abuse.


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