Over time, substance abuse causes chemical changes in the brain, which results in a physical dependence on drugs and alcohol. This cycle is the hallmark of addiction and creates both psychological obsessions and intense physical cravings for substances. Using both heavily and frequently along with the development of a tolerance are often the signals of emerging dependence, which puts you at risk for a dangerous detox. If you are concerned about your drug or alcohol use, a healthcare professional can diagnose you with a substance use disorder and help guide you to the most effective treatment options.
For those with substance use disorders and dependence, the process of withdrawal, or removal of substances from the body, can range from painful to life-threatening, and it is best to have professional help when attempting to quit using.
Alcohol and different types of drugs have varying symptoms and timelines associated with withdrawal, and understanding the detox process can be helpful as you consider the treatment options that best fit your needs. Below is an overview of the withdrawal process for the major types of substances that can lead to dangerous detox symptoms:
Benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Ativan, etc.): Symptoms start within a few days of taking the last drug and tend to peak within 1-2 weeks. Quitting benzodiazepines causes a chemical imbalance in the brain, which can lead to panic attacks, tremors, short-term memory loss, irregular heartbeat, and nausea. In more serious cases, symptoms like seizures, hallucinations, and delirium occur, which can lead to coma and death. It is recommended that detoxing from benzodiazepines be medically managed in order to watch for and control these potentially life-threatening symptoms.
Cocaine, Methamphetamine, and other Stimulants: Withdrawal from stimulants usually starts within a few hours of ingesting the substance and results in immediate symptoms of a crash, including fatigue, trouble concentrating, and agitation. These symptoms can last from a few hours to several days. The next phase of acute withdrawal can last for 1-3 weeks and includes symptoms of insomnia, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and intense drug cravings. Although detoxing from stimulants is not typically considered life-threatening, it is helpful to have professional guidance in order to overcome the psychological and physical toll of withdrawal. Treatment professionals can help you overcome symptoms like anxiety, depression, and cravings, which pose a risk to your wellbeing and recovery.
Alcohol: Withdrawal can begin anywhere from 8 hours up to a few days after taking the last drink. Symptoms caused by alcohol detox are often most severe during the first week of detox and include dangerous medical issues such as tremors, seizures, hallucinations, delirium tremens (the most serious symptom), and severe confusion. Other symptoms include depression, insomnia, shakiness, mood swings, and shallow breathing. Alcohol withdrawal is considered life-threatening, and symptoms can occur suddenly and in highly irregular patterns that make them difficult to manage. It is always advised that those who are at high risk for alcohol dependence seek professional medical assistance when attempting to quit drinking.
Heroin and Prescription Opiates (morphine, oxycodone, methadone, etc.): Withdrawal from heroin or prescription opiates begins around 12 hours after taking the last drug and is often the most severe for the next 12-48 hours. Intense symptoms can last for up to a week and include agitation, anxiety, muscle aches, and flu-like symptoms. In the latter stages of withdrawal, new symptoms often emerge including vomiting, chills, and diarrhea. Withdrawal from opiates is usually not life-threatening, but it is very painful and makes it difficult to achieve sobriety from this highly addictive class of drugs. It is recommended that anyone trying to detox from opiates seek medical and psychiatric help to stay on top of painful symptoms and increase the chances of successfully quitting.
When to Seek Help
Anyone who has developed alcohol or drug dependence or who fears they may be at risk for dependence should seek professional help when attempting to quit drinking or using drugs. Several therapies, both medicinal and behavioral, can ease the pain of withdrawal symptoms and control potentially life-threatening issues like seizures, delirium, and suicidal thoughts.