What Drug Withdrawal Feels Like Header

What Does Drug Withdrawal Feel Like & How Long Does It Take?

If you have a drug addiction and you want to stop using, it is important to understand what drug withdrawal feels like. It will not be easy, but there are ways for you to get help.

The type of withdrawal you experience will depend on what drug you are stopping. There are some symptoms that will be similar for all drugs, and some that will be different. Withdrawal from many drugs, for example, often include symptoms like fatigue and cravings. But only specific ones cause tremors, muscle aches, panic attacks, and/or life-threatening seizures.

Knowing what to expect beforehand is so important in preparing recovering addicts for what’s ahead. And the more prepared, the better the odds are at a kicking a drug habit for good.

This guide takes a closer look at withdrawal. What does it feel like? How is it different for the various types of addictive substances? Why does it happen at all? And what can recovering addicts do to get through it safely?

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What is Drug Withdrawal Like?

Drug withdrawal is very difficult to go through. It happens when someone stops the use of an addictive substance. It can also occur when cutting down on how much or how often the drug is used.

What is Withdrawal

Different drugs produce a variety of withdrawal symptoms. In general, users should expect some physical, mental, and/or emotional reactions when they stop using. There may be several days when you they do not feel like yourself themselves.

Even so, it is possible to go through withdrawal from drugs successfully. As long as they get the right support, addicts can quit, and stay quit long-term.

In this video, a recovered drug addict talks about what different types of drug withdrawal feels like:

Factors Influence Withdrawal Symptoms

There are several factors that influence what an addict’s experience with drug withdrawal will be like. These include:

  • The type of drug(s) being used.
  • How long they have been using.
  • How much they use at one time.
  • Whether or not they mix drugs with alcohol or other substances.
  • How quickly their body metabolizes the drug.
  • Age.
  • Whether they also suffer from a co-occurring disorder, or mental health condition.
  • The type of support they receive when you quit.
  • Their outlook on their recovery.

Everyone’s experience with withdrawal will vary. There are people who have severe symptoms, and there are those who hardly experience any at all.

Likewise, if they have quit in the past, that doesn’t mean that this experience will be the exact same. The body and the mind both change over the course of an addiction. And the way they respond to withdrawal can be far different even just a year later.

Withdrawal can also be made harder by what’s known as a “kindling effect.” This is when the symptoms of withdrawal actually get worse and worse with each failed attempt.

Here’s an example of how this works.

An alcoholic, we’ll call him Joe, has been drinking heavily for quite a few years. And while the severity of his addiction hasn't really changed much along the way, Joe has tried to quit several times. Usually, he's able to stay sober for a few weeks at a time before falling back into old bad habits.

Joe also notices that each time he goes through withdrawal, it feels like it’s harder than the time before. And as withdrawal becomes increasingly difficult to push through, it makes it less and less likely that Joe will ever be able to quit drinking in the future.

This is the kindling effect.

It’s been observed in cases of both alcoholism and benzodiazepine addiction, two of the hardest substance abuse problems to recover from.

To make matters worse, the kindling effect also increases the risk of experiencing the most life-threatening symptoms of withdrawal – especially seizures and even psychosis.

In the end, the kindling effect is just one more reason why anyone suffering from an addiction should seek out professional help during detox.

What Drugs Cause Withdrawal Symptoms?

Any drug that causes an addiction will probably lead to withdrawal symptoms when it is stopped. But it is important to understand what will happen to you based on the drug you are using.

Some of the more common drug categories that cause withdrawal when they are stopped include:

There are both legal and illegal opioids that can lead to addiction. Some examples of these drugs include:

Opioid withdrawal symptoms can be very severe, and many people are scared to stop taking them for this reason. Some of the more common symptoms of opioid withdrawal include:

  • Achy muscles
  • Tearing of the eyes
  • Yawning
  • Excessive sweating
  • Stomach cramps
  • Symptoms of anxiety
  • Anger and agitation
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea

During the withdrawal period, there is a risk of aspiration if an individual vomits and the contents of the stomach are breathed into the lungs. This can lead to a lung infection or even suffocation. Excessive vomiting and diarrhea can also lead to dehydration.

This is an excellent TED talk that discusses opioid withdrawal in even more detail:

While the symptoms of opioid detoxification aren’t fatal in their own right, that doesn’t mean that death isn’t a serious risk during detox. And one of the biggest threats to a recovering opioid addict’s safety is relapsing.

And it all has to do with tolerance.

Opioids in particular are notorious for building up physical tolerance especially quickly. In some cases, patients have even shown signs of tolerance just hours after taking a high dose. But on the other side of the spectrum is the fact that tolerance to these drugs also drops quickly after quitting.

And it can happen sooner than many people think.

The danger here is that opioid withdrawal is incredibly uncomfortable. And unfortunately, many addicts aren’t able to push through the withdrawals and end up relapsing. When they do, they often go back to using the same dose that got them high before.

However, due to the rapidly dropping tolerance, that does can actually end up being far more dangerous now after just a short time of sobriety. It can even be fatal.

In fact, this is one of the main reasons why accidental overdose is so common and so deadly when it comes to heroin.

And it’s just one more reason why a professional program is key to quitting these dangerous drugs.

For opioid addicts, withdrawal usually begins within the first 24 hours. This may occur as soon as within six hours, depending on the individual’s normal dosing schedule. At first, symptoms should be relatively minor. This is what causes people to believe they can attempt to quit on their own. They will become more severe within the next 72 hours.

As the process continues, additional symptoms will appear, and they will get worse. They will continue to progress until after three days has passed. After that, they should begin to get better.

Most people feel the best around seven to ten days after their last dose. But there are some who may greatly improve within three days, or their symptoms might linger for up to 14 days.

Withdrawal Symptoms From Benzodiazepines

Benzos are some of the most prescribed medications in the United States. They are usually given to treat anxiety, but they can treat other conditions as well. Some examples of benzodiazepines include:

  • Xanax
  • Ativan
  • Klonopin
  • Librium
  • Restoril
  • Halcion

Most treatment professionals agree that benzodiazepine withdrawal is among the most dangerous type. It is accompanied by a host of withdrawal symptoms that can potentially become life-threatening.

On top of that, withdrawal from benzos can often be particularly uncomfortable, even more so than other heavy hitters like heroin, meth, or cocaine. One survey from the online drug forum BlueLight found that a whopping 38.71% of respondents thought benzos had the worst withdrawals. The runner-ups were methadone and heroin, which just 13.98% and 13.52% of survey respondents chose respectively.

So while these drugs may be legal when properly prescribed, they can be excruciating to quit without proper help.

And when you look at the long list of common benzo withdrawal symptoms, it’s easy to see why. These include:

Psychological Symptoms

  • Excitability (jumpiness, restlessness)
  • Insomnia, nightmares, other sleep disturbances
  • Increased anxiety, panic attacks
  • Agoraphobia, social phobia
  • Perceptual distortions
  • Depersonalisation, derealisation
  • Depression
  • Obsessions
  • Paranoid thoughts
  • Rage, aggression, irritability
  • Poor memory and concentration
  • Intrusive memories
  • Craving (rare)
  • Hallucinations, misperceptions

Physical Symptoms

  • Headache
  • Pain/stiffness - (limbs, back, neck, teeth, jaw)
  • Tingling, numbness, altered sensation - (limbs, face, trunk)
  • Weakness ("jelly-legs")
  • Fatigue, influenza-like symptoms
  • Muscle twitches, jerks, tics, "electric shocks"
  • Tremor
  • Dizziness, light-headedness, poor balance
  • Blurred/double vision, sore or dry eyes
  • Tinnitus
  • Hypersensitivity - (light, sound, touch, taste, smell)
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms - (nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea,
  • constipation, pain, distension, difficulty swallowing)
  • Appetite/weight change
  • Dry mouth, metallic taste, unusual smell
  • Flushing/sweating/palpitations
  • Overbreathing
  • Urinary difficulties/menstrual difficulties
  • Skin rashes, itching
  • Fits (rare)

With higher doses of these medications, it is also possible for people to experience seizures and psychosis. The good news is that the right treatment can manage benzodiazepine withdrawal very well.

In this video, one young man shares his experience with benzo withdrawal:

Benzodiazepines are one of the just two drug types out there (the other is alcohol) that can have directly fatal withdrawal symptoms.

When a benzo addict tries to detox without medical support or tapering, their system is launched into a huge range of dangerous symptoms. These may include what are known as tonic-clonic seizures, which can actually end up being life-threatening.

That’s because benzodiazepines interact with a particular brain chemical known as GABA (or more technically gamma-aminobutyric acid). This chemical is responsible for calming the brain down, so to speak. And benzos make this chemical even more powerful.

Over the course of a benzo addiction, though, the body counteracts that stronger GABA by intensifying excitatory chemicals in the brain like glutamate.

The problem, and the danger, comes from when benzodiazepines are stopped all at once. Doing so rapidly returns the GABA to the original, less powerful strength. But the excitatory chemicals stay just as potent as before. And without the stronger GABA to push back against them, the brain is overloaded by these excitatory chemicals.

As a result, it’s launched into a flurry of electrical activity, causing symptoms like anxiety, paranoia, irritability, and life-threatening tonic-clonic seizures.

It can take a very long time for someone to get through benzodiazepine withdrawal. Symptoms usually start within the first six to twelve hours. At first, symptoms should be mild, and relatively easy to manage.

They may continue to become more severe over the course of the next few weeks. Most people experience the peak of benzo withdrawal at around the two-week mark. At that point, they should start to subside.

It is not uncommon for people to continue to have withdrawal symptoms off and on for several months or even years after their last dose. Fortunately, the symptoms can be controlled very well with the right detox program.

Prescription Stimulants Withdrawal

For people who suffer from ADD or ADHD, prescription stimulants can be a lifesaver. They allow them to focus their attention and truly improve their lives tremendously. But these drugs are often abused – both by people who have prescriptions and those who do not.

Some of the most common types of prescription stimulants include:

  • Adderall
  • Dexedrine
  • Focalin
  • Ritalin
  • Vyvanse
  • Concerta

It is very difficult to manage prescription stimulant withdrawal without professional guidance and support. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Cravings for the drug
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Either insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Psychomotor agitation retardation or agitation
  • An increase in appetite
  • Symptoms of depression
  • Vivid and unpleasant dreams
  • Aches and pains
  • Impaired social functioning

Without proper treatment, users can experience a crash when they stop taking prescription stimulant drugs like Adderall. This can be characterized by a severe form of depression that can last for months, or even years. Some people may even become suicidal as a result.

This video explains what one man experienced during Adderall withdrawal:

While all drug withdrawal syndromes can be dangerous to the individual, detoxing from amphetamines can be hazardous to others. That’s because this kind of withdrawal syndrome may be accompanied by a type of psychosis not found in other drugs.

Known as Amphetamine Withdrawal Psychosis (or AWP), this condition is marked by hallucinations, delusions, thought disorders, and paranoia. In some cases, patients can become violent towards themselves or towards others.

This condition is usually quite rare. And severe substance abuse, past psychotic episodes, and underlying psychological disorders can all increase the risks.

But while not many people do go through Amphetamine Withdrawal Psychosis, this risk is just one more reason why partnering with a professional detox facility can end up being a wise decision.

The withdrawal timeline for prescription stimulants depends on a few different factors. The most important one is how long the patient has been taking the medication. The duration of symptoms varies from person to person, and they can last for a few days to several weeks.

Symptoms should begin with the first 12 to 24 hours after the last dose. They will become more severe over the next three days. By the fourth day, they should begin to subside, and should continue to do so throughout the rest of the week.

During the second week, cravings for the drug may persist. Many people are at risk for a relapse during this timeframe. It is possible for symptoms to linger through the third week and even beyond. But proper treatment can shorten the length of withdrawal immensely.

Withdrawals From Illegal Stimulants

Without a doubt, illegal stimulants are some of the most addictive drugs on the planet. Substances like cocaine and methamphetamine can lead to a quick addiction, and they are very dangerous.

For someone who is addicted to one of these drugs, the withdrawal symptoms can be very hard to cope with. The most common symptoms of withdrawal for drugs like cocaine and meth include:

  • Extreme anxiety
  • Sluggishness and fatigue
  • Sleepiness
  • Cravings for the drug
  • Cravings for carbohydrates
  • Depression symptoms
  • The onset of psychosis
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions

This video offers an excellent explanation on meth withdrawal:

Due to the nature of stimulants (which directly affect the brain’s main pleasure chemical dopamine), this withdrawal syndrome often goes hand in hand with a severe depression. And this depression can end up lasting for days, weeks, and even months in some cases.

It all has to do with how stimulants interact with the brain on a chemical level. To explain, stimulants like meth and cocaine directly affect the levels of dopamine being released. This chemical is considered the “pleasure” chemical. The joy that one feels while performing certain activities can all be traced back to dopamine.

However, over time, stimulant addiction makes it harder for the body to produce this pleasure chemical naturally. And as a result, the world can seem gray, dull, and joyless for someone in stimulant withdrawal.

If the depression that results is left untreated, patients are at risk of:

  1. Relapsing and turning back to drug use
  2. Suicide ideation or committing harm to themselves

That’s why it’s so important to always get the right kind of support during stimulant withdrawal. And a professional program is the best place to get it.

The physical symptoms of stimulant withdrawal usually fade faster than the psychological ones. They can last for a very long time. Symptoms usually begin within the first 24 hours after the last dose has been taken. They are generally mild at first, but can increase in severity very quickly.

During the first seven days, people experience a crash from stopping the drugs. This is when people experience increased fatigue, but they may have trouble sleeping. People generally feel irritable during this time as well.

Additional symptoms may develop over the next few weeks, and drug cravings will be present throughout. Going through a professional detox can shorten the duration of withdrawal immensely. It can also protect the individual from experiencing any unwanted complications from stopping the drug.

Alcohol Withdrawals

Alcohol withdrawal is one of the most severe forms. This often surprises people because it is viewed as being a relatively benign drug. But it is still a drug. And stopping it abruptly and without supervision once someone is addicted can have devastating, even fatal consequences.

The most common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Feeling nervous or anxious
  • Symptoms of depression
  • Feeling fatigued
  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling shaky or jumpy
  • Having mood swings
  • Having nightmares
  • Brain fog
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • A rapid heart rate
  • Sweating excessively

Delirium tremens is a condition that can occur when a person stops drinking alcohol. It is more common in those who have been drinking excessively for ten years or longer. But it can happen to anyone who is an alcoholic.

This condition – which is often referred to as the DTs – can potentially be fatal if left untreated. Some of the symptoms of DTs include:

  • Having body tremors
  • Having hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • A deep sleep that can last longer than 24 hours
  • Changes in the way a person thinks
  • Feeling sensitive to light, sound, and touch
  • Irrational feelings of fear or excitement
  • Becoming delirious
  • Extreme irritability or anger
  • Having quick bursts of energy

This video explains how Nelsan Ellis died because of alcohol withdrawal:

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal usually begin within the first eight hours after the last drink. At first, people usually only experience some anxiety, insomnia, abdominal pain and/or nausea.

Within the first 24-72 hours, symptoms will increase in severity. The person’s blood pressure and heart rate may increase. They may also experience an increase in body temperature and possibly become confused.

After two to four days, people are most at risk for DTs. Those that avoid this condition may begin to feel better at the end of this timeframe. Symptoms will continue to improve throughout the rest of the week. 

What is the Risk of PAWS?

For some recovering addicts, the symptoms of withdrawal don’t end up tapering off for quite some time. They may, for instance, still feel extreme fatigue, difficulty focusing, and anxiety. And these may persist for weeks, months, or even years after the acute withdrawal stage.

This is what’s known as Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, or PAWS. It also goes by a number of other names as well, including:

  • Protracted withdrawal
  • Chronic withdrawal
  • Extended withdrawal
  • Late withdrawal
  • Long-term withdrawal
  • Persistent postuse symptoms
  • Postuse syndrome
  • Protracted abstinence
  • Sobriety-based symptoms
  • Subacute withdrawal

This condition is still not well-understood. And in fact, some addiction facilities either don’t know how to treat it or that it even exists in the first place. As a result, someone who is experiencing PAWS may not get the help they need to stay sober through this condition if they choose to partner with the wrong program.

And of course, that can very easily lead to a full-blown relapse down the line.

Like regular withdrawal, the symptoms of PAWS won’t be the same for everyone. Severity and duration of addiction, type of substance abused, co-occurring disorders and more all can make one person’s PAWS experience far different from another’s.

However, there are a few symptoms that have been documented and are pointed out by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). These include:

  • Anxiety
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Problems with short-term memory
  • Persistent fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Alcohol or drug cravings
  • Impaired executive control
  • Anhedonia (the inability to experience pleasure)
  • Difficulty focusing on tasks
  • Dysphoria (unease, dissatisfaction with life) or depression
  • Irritability
  • Unexplained physical complaints
  • Reduced interest in sex

It is very important for people to work closely with medical professionals for a long time after stopping their use of drugs. The right treatment can help to manage PAWS appropriately and make it much more comfortable.

The data on PAWS is still inconclusive. And there is still plenty more study that needs to be done on this unusual condition. Some people may experience it for several weeks after detox while others still feel the symptoms even years later.

However, there is a fair bit of research concerning the timeline and the specific symptoms for certain substances.

  • Alcohol – The anxiety, hostility, irritability, depression, mood instability, fatigue, insomnia, concentration difficulties, and the reduced interest in sext can last for 2 years or more in recovering alcoholics. Sleep abnormalities can persist for 1 to 3 years.
  • Opioids – Anxiety, depression, impaired focus, reduced control, and sleep disturbances can last for weeks or months after detox.
  • Prescription & Illicit Stimulants – Poor executive control has been documented for long periods after quitting amphetamines and methamphetamine.
  • Cocaine – Impulse control and emotional regulation problems have been observed for 4 weeks after quitting. After 4 weeks, emotional regulation improved by impulse control did not.
  • Marijuana – Sleep difficulties and strange dreams affected marijuana addicts at least 45 days after quitting.
  • Benzodiazepines – Intense symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, and restlessness tend to appear after a period of no symptoms following detox. These can appear several weeks later and may persist for several more weeks.

While there are no set-in-stone treatments for PAWS right now, there are a few things that professional addiction programs can do to help patients going through it. According to SAMHSA, these include: 

  • Educating clients about protracted withdrawal and help them develop realistic attitudes toward recovery.
  • Celebrating each accomplishment.
  • Assessing for co-occurring disorders.
  • Asking about sleep problems.
  • Advising clients to be active.
  • Advising clients to be patient.
  • Prescribing medications as needed to control symptoms past the acute withdrawal stage.
  • Encouraging clients to join mutual support groups
  • Including interventions that help clients strengthen executive control functions.
  • Monitoring clients for symptoms during continuing care. 

Why do Addicts Go Through Withdrawal?

There are a lot of reasons why drug addicts go through withdrawal when they stop using. One of the main reasons is because of the way drugs result in the increase of dopamine in the brain.

Why Addicts Experience Withdrawals

Dopamine is a chemical that your brain naturally produces on its own. You experience it when something good happens to you. Some examples of when people have dopamine surges include:

  • After eating a delicious meal.
  • After having dessert.
  • After sexual intercourse.
  • After spending time with a loved one.
  • When taking an exciting vacation.

In short, dopamine is what makes you enjoy your life. It’s a brain chemical that’s meant to reinforce certain behaviors by giving us a burst of pleasure when we perform them. Basically, it’s what motivates us to do, well, anything.

When someone started using drugs, they experienced a surge of dopamine that eventually became addictive. This is also what many people refer to as euphoria. As they continued to use, their brain stopped producing this chemical on its own. Instead, it relied on the drug to do the job for it. The result was that they stopped feeling like themselves unless they were using.

During recovery, it takes a while for dopamine levels to return to normal. The brain has to slowly learn how to manage without the help of the drug in the system. Eventually, recovering addicts will begin to feel more like themselves again, without having to depend on drugs at all. 

Are There Ways to Manage Withdrawal on Your Own?

Withdrawal

One of the most common ways to quit using is to go cold turkey. But there are a lot of risks associated with this method. And some of them can actually be deadly. That’s why it’s so important to partner with a professional detox facility or, at the very least, consult a doctor beforehand.

Ways to Manage Drug Withdrawal

Most addiction treatment experts agree that stopping the use of drugs without professional help can be dangerous. Withdrawal symptoms from some types of drugs can even be fatal if they are not managed.

If you have decided to try to quit using on your own, you should at least take the following steps:

  • Plan to have someone with you at all times as you go through the detoxification process.
  • Make sure you have plenty of nutritious foods on hand.
  • Take time off from work or school so that you can rest as much as possible.
  • Keep water, Gatorade or other hydrating beverages in your house so you do not become dehydrated.
  • Consider using over the counter medications or supplements that can help.

Do Drug Detox Kits Work?

There are many proponents of natural drug detox methods, and it is common for people to want to try drug detox kits. They are available at many pharmacies and you can also purchase them online. The problem is that they rarely work as well as they say they do.

Instead, recovering addicts are much better off choosing a professional program that has been proven to be effective. Otherwise, it is possible that they will waste a lot of money on products that will not benefit them. And even more importantly, they could even be quite dangerous. 

What is Professional Drug Detox, and How is it Different From Rehab?

It is very common for people to confuse drug detox with rehab. Both are often an essential part of the recovery process, but they are very different.

When patients go to drug detox, they are receiving help for the physical side of their addiction. This includes treatment for their withdrawal symptoms. It is a process by which toxins are removed from the body, and it can speed up recovery.

When patients go to drug rehab, they are receiving help for the psychological side of their addiction. They work with a therapist in a one-on-one setting to learn more about their substance abuse problem. This includes figuring out what caused their addiction to occur in the first place.

In addition, they will have many different types of therapy. This might include family therapy and group therapy with other patients.

Behavioral therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Contingency Management Interventions (CMI), and more are also helpful in controlling cravings and avoiding triggers.

Sometimes patients want to skip detox because they feel it is not necessary. Alternatively, they may want to skip rehab once their withdrawal symptoms are under control. But as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) points out, “detoxification is only the first stage of addiction treatment and by itself does little to change long-term drug use.”

However, skipping any stage of treatment can be detrimental to their recovery. In most cases, both types of treatment are 100% necessary and are vital components of the healing process.

It is very rare for someone to be able to rely on willpower alone to get through withdrawal. No matter how badly they want to stop using, an addiction is a powerful force. Drug detox is often an essential part of recovery because of the way it treats withdrawal symptoms.

Patients will generally undergo different types of drug detoxification treatments. Many believe that medical detox is necessary because the patient can take medications to help with their symptoms. For patients who are addicted to opiates, opioids or alcohol, they may require medication-assisted treatment or Opioid Replacement Therapies (ORTs). They may also be prescribed various holistic treatments, such as dietary changes and exercise.

When it is done in the right way, patients may experience less severe withdrawals. Some people even report that a few of the expected symptoms do not show up at all. Detoxing can also help people avoid some of the complications that can come with the withdrawal process. 

Northpoint Evergreen Bellevue

Get Started With Drug Addiction Recovery Today

Many people fail to get started with drug addiction recovery because they are afraid of withdrawal symptoms. While this is very common, we want to assure you that there is nothing to fear. With the right support and treatment, you or your loved one can successfully get through withdrawal.

At The Evergreen at Northpoint, we can provide you with the support you need. We can refer you to an excellent program for drug detox. If you are in need of Vivitrol services (for opioid or alcohol addiction), we can help you with that. Afterwards, we will be happy to assist you as you continue working toward your recovery goals through drug rehab.

Do you have additional questions about drug withdrawal? Please let us know by contacting us today.

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