What is Withdrawal?


Withdrawal is a term that refers to the physical and mental effects individuals experience when they reduce the intake of a substance such as alcohol or drugs or stop using it altogether. 

The signs and symptoms of withdrawal typically vary depending on the substance that has been discontinued. The intensity and duration of the symptoms can also vary widely, depending not only on the type of drug you are taking but also on your genetics.

In many cases, withdrawal comes with a wealth of unpleasant symptoms that can also become dangerous in some situations. Withdrawal symptoms may develop whether a person quits a substance suddenly or reduces the amount they are using gradually. The body is attempting to reach a state of homeostasis as it dispels the substance, resulting in large fluctuations in brain chemicals that lead to significant physical and mental health repercussions.

What are the main symptoms of withdrawal?

Drug withdrawal typically includes a combination of mental, physical, and emotional symptoms, but some of the most common of them including the following:

  • Diarrhea
  • Excessive sweating
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Frequent yawning
  • Goosebumps
  • Hot and cold flashes
  • Muscle cramps/body aches
  • Nausea
  • Nervousness or anxiety
  • Runny nose
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Tremors
  • Vomiting

In some cases, more severe symptoms such as seizures, hallucinations, or delirium may also occur. There are multiple factors that determine the type and severity of the symptoms someone experiences in withdrawal, ranging from the type of how long does drug they were taking to the dosage and the amount of time they were taking it.

How long does withdrawal last?

The duration of the withdrawal is influenced by the type of substance someone used and the level of dependence they had on the substance. It may take days, weeks, or months in some cases for all the withdrawal symptoms to disappear, depending on individual circumstances.

Below you’ll find a general overview of the expected withdrawal timelines for some common substances.

  • Alcohol — The first signs of alcohol withdrawal typically appear within several hours after consuming the last drink, and they generally peak in the next 24 to 48 hours. There is a risk of seizure for 12 to 48 hours after the last drink. Other risks such as delirium tremens may occur for as long as 72 hours after the last drink.
  • Short-acting opioids (some prescription painkillers and heroin) — Withdrawal symptoms start between 8 to 24 hours after the last years and may last for up to 10 days.
  • Long-acting opioids (methadone) — It typically takes 2 to 4 days for withdrawal symptoms to begin, and they may last for up to 10 days.
  • Benzodiazepines (Valium, etc.) — withdrawal starts within one to four days and peaks in the first two weeks. 
  • Marijuana — most users experience mild withdrawal symptoms when quitting marijuana, and they typically last for a couple of days. However, the withdrawal symptoms can be unpleasant enough to make them go back to using.
  • Nicotine — nicotine withdrawal symptoms are not as debilitating as those resulting from withdrawal from alcohol or drugs. Still, they may last for weeks or even months, which is what makes it very difficult for many people to give up cigarettes.

The duration and severity of withdrawing from substance dependence vary according to many factors, including the amount of substance someone used and the period of time for which they used it.

Detoxing from a substance may result in various health risks and symptoms that evolve over different time frames when compared to other types of substances. With some substances, withdrawal symptoms can be uncomfortable but not dangerous, whereas the symptoms may be severe and even potentially life-threatening with others.

What causes withdrawal symptoms?

When someone takes a substance for a prolonged period of time, the body begins to build a tolerance and dependence on it. These two issues are not the same, with tolerance meaning that it typically takes larger quantities to achieve the same effects. Dependency refers to the fact that the body requires continuous amounts of the substance to avoid experience withdrawal effects.

When someone decreases the intake of the substance or stops it altogether, the body is thrown off balance, which results in withdrawal symptoms. These are typically the opposite of the effects of substance had on the body. For example, someone who stops consuming alcohol, which is a depressant, may experience various symptoms of overstimulation, such as restlessness or anxiety.

Symptoms of Withdrawal

What are the treatment options for withdrawal?

Treatment from substance withdrawal typically includes supporting medications to prevent possible complications and ease symptoms during the period of withdrawal. 

You may need medical supervision for safe withdrawal, which is why it’s important to discuss your options with your doctor before going cold turkey or reducing the amount of substance you’re using gradually.

This is not required for all substances — people can stop using caffeine or nicotine abruptly without needing medical help. In many cases, this is simply a matter of coping with any unpleasant symptoms until they pass.

However, quitting substances such as alcohol or heroin abruptly can be potentially dangerous, which is why it’s important to consult with a medical professional and go on a detox plan. With these substances, medical assisted withdrawal can help alleviate symptoms and ensure that you are safe during the withdrawal process.

What are some common medications prescribed for withdrawal?

Your doctor will come out with the detox plan that includes medications that help alleviate symptoms, and they are different depending on the type of substance you were using.

Medication makes it easier for recovering addicts to remain sober. Most people who try to give up alcohol or drugs on their own relapse mainly because they can’t cope with the withdrawal systems without help.

During the detox period, which happens in the initial stages of recovery, the purpose is to eliminate drugs from the body. Different medications are used to treat withdrawal symptoms during this time, with some of the drugs commonly prescribed in detox including:

Benzodiazepines — benzos reduce irritability and anxiety, which are common symptoms of withdrawal from many drugs, including heroin and cocaine. These drugs are also used for alcohol withdrawal because they have a sedative effect. Many doctors are often cautious about prescribing benzodiazepines because even though they are efficient at easing withdrawal symptoms, they can also be addictive.

Clonidine — a drug often used to treat opiate and alcohol withdrawals, clonidine reduces cramps and muscle aches and also helps with anxiety. It’s also a medication prescribed for stopping seizures and tremors.

Antidepressants — many people rely on drugs to experience happiness, which is why many of those in detox experience depression in the absence of said drugs. Antidepressants such as Prozac and Zoloft can help ease the feeling of depression until the brain can produce happiness-inducing chemicals on its own.

How to cope with withdrawal symptoms?

Seeking medical support is the first step to go through withdrawal safely, but there are also some other things that you can do on your own to make yourself feel better as you go through the process.

  • Pay attention to your diet — make sure you eat nutritious meals every day and avoid foods that are high in sugar and fat because they may make you feel worse.
  • Exercise every day — it’s essential to try to get at least some physical activity every day, even if it’s just a short walk, because it can help you boost your mood.
  • Stay hydrated — don’t forget to drink plenty of water as you’re going through withdrawal because these could lessen symptoms such as vomiting and nausea.
  • Get eight hours of sleep every night — for most patients, withdrawal may result in sleeping difficulties, but it’s still important to try and get 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. It always helps to establish a regular sleep schedule and keep to it.
  • Use over-the-counter medications — if you experience physical symptoms such as an upset stomach, headache, or diarrhea, you can alleviate them with over-the-counter medications. Ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice on the recommended dosage.
  • Engage in relaxing activities — yoga or meditation are relaxing activities that can also help you cope with withdrawal symptoms. Try to get at least a session every day to help you get through the process.

If you have decided to quit alcohol, smoking weed, or other substances such as opioids, chances are you’ll experience at least some withdrawal symptoms. It’s essential to understand that you don’t have to do it on your own. To go through withdrawal safely, seek help from your doctor or another healthcare provider to help you deal with the mental and physical symptoms of withdrawal.

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