A statistics report from March 2020 shows that around 1.6 million people in England and Wales, aged between 16 and 59, had taken illicit drugs within the previous year (1).
Taking illicit drugs even one time increases your chances of developing an addiction. This can lead to many unpleasant withdrawal symptoms which can make overcoming your addiction much more difficult.
What is drug withdrawal?
When a person repeatedly uses drugs or alcohol, their brain becomes accustomed to the chemicals within that drug. As the drug begins to change the chemical compounds of the brain, you begin to feel more and more reliant on the drug and eventually have to take higher doses more frequently in order to feel normal. Once an addiction reaches this stage, it is difficult to stop taking the drug as your brain will send out signals to you that you need the drug again.
The signals that the brain sends out often result in unpleasant symptoms such as sickness and nausea. While these symptoms are temporary, they can be very dangerous and sometimes life-threatening. Withdrawal symptoms typically start 24 hours after the last dose of the drug was taken, and can last anywhere between 1 day and 2 weeks.
It is a good idea to get some professional help throughout the detoxing and withdrawal process. This ensures that you have access to medication that can counteract the withdrawal symptoms, as well as mental health support through your journey.
Drug withdrawal symptoms
Drug withdrawal can cause a range of physical, mental, and emotional side effects. The side effects vary from person to person and can be different for each person depending on several factors. Some people will feel able to withdraw at home with little support, while others will need 24-hour care and medical interventions to control the symptoms.
The factors that affect the severity of your withdrawal are:
- The length of time you have abused the drug
- The dosage you took each time
- The drug you are addicted to
- The method you used to administer the drug, e.g., injected, snorted, smoked etc
- Whether you are addicted to one or more drugs
- Your overall mental health
Some of the physical symptoms of withdrawal include:
- Muscle aches
- Joint pain
- Cold and flu-like symptoms
- Cold sweats
Mental and emotional symptoms of withdrawal include:
- Confusion and brain fog
- Intense mood swings
- Lack of focus and concentration
- Short term memory loss
- Intense cravings for the drug of choice
If the addiction was very severe, a serious side-effect of withdrawal is delirium tremens, also known as DT’s. This causes a mixture of physical and mental side effects and can be extremely unpleasant and frightening.
Some of the side effects of delirium tremens are:
- Extreme confusion
- Angry outbursts
- High blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness
- Chest pain
- Rapid heartbeat
- Uncontrollable trembling and shaking
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sensitivity overload – being unable to handle light, sound, or touch
Delirium tremens typically lasts between 1 and 3 days but can last up to 8 days. Studies show that between 1% and 4% of patients with delirium tremens die as a result of it (2).
Drug withdrawal by substance
While the above highlights generic withdrawal symptoms, it is helpful to know which drugs cause which symptoms. Below are some of the most commonly abused drugs and their most common withdrawal symptoms.
Heroin or other opiate withdrawal
Heroin is a highly addictive and very dangerous substance that releases dopamine in the brain and can cause addiction incredibly quickly.
Other drugs in the opiate family include prescription painkillers such as oxycodone, morphine, and fentanyl. These medications may be prescribed after surgery or injury, and you will need to have regular check-ups to check on your overall health.
There is a trend in people who are prescribed these types of drugs who then move on to heroin once they are no longer prescribed their medication (3).
Heroin and opiate withdrawal symptoms include:
- Cold and flu-like symptoms
- Cold sweats
- Body aches
Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant. It acts by blocking the removal of dopamine from the brain leaving you with a build-up of it, making you feel elevated.
Cocaine withdrawal is extremely distressing for many people as it can cause many unpleasant psychological side effects including:
- Psychotic episodes
- Mood swings
- Suicidal thoughts
- Extreme fatigue
Alcohol is relatively inexpensive, it is completely legal, and it is easy to come by, so it can be a very dangerous addiction to develop.
If alcohol addiction is very severe, withdrawal symptoms can lead to coma and even death. Severe alcoholics generally need medical help to overcome their addiction, this involves treatment at a residential rehabilitation facility.
Some of the most common withdrawal symptoms of alcohol include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Delirium tremens
Can drug withdrawal be prevented?
Withdrawal from substances such as drugs and alcohol can be life-threatening and scary, but help is available. No matter what you are addicted to, there are specialists that are trained to help get you through it in the safest way possible.
If you or someone you know is suffering from an addiction, contact your healthcare provider immediately. It is best to get help straight away because prolonging the addiction will make overcoming it much more difficult.
Drugs such as methadone can be prescribed to help alleviate any cravings for your drug of choice, as well as reduce any negative side effects such as sickness. Over time, your dosage will be reduced until you no longer need to take it at all.
If you are addicted to prescription drugs, your healthcare provider can arrange a tapering plan for you. Tapering is similar to the methadone approach, except you keep using the prescription drugs that you are addicted to.
Your doctor will continually prescribe a lower dosage after a certain time until you are no longer reliant on the drug.
This is a safer way to overcome addiction rather than quitting “cold turkey” and can massively reduce the withdrawal symptoms.
Other treatments include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), counselling, family therapy, peer-support groups, and mindfulness practices such as meditation and art therapy. While these treatments will not lessen the severity of the withdrawal symptoms, they are proven to be effective in providing support and preventing relapse.