Coming off drugs or alcohol isn’t easy, but you can do it with the right steps. Collaborating with a medical professional who can help you create a tapering plan or calendar is highly recommended to safely get started.
Death during withdrawal occurs very rarely, and where it does occur, proper assistance such as calming medications to avoid cardiac problems, and adequate fluids to avoid life-threatening dehydration could have avoided catastrophe.1 Having a professional to help you with the detox process can ensure you not only do so safely, but to do so in a way that will improve recovery outcomes and decrease relapse episodes.
Why You Should Seek Help With Withdrawals
Once you stop consuming a drug or alcohol that you have been addicted to for some time, you may experience withdrawals. These occur because your entire body, including the brain and central nervous system has come to rely on the chemicals provided by drugs or alcohol and needs them to function. When the substance is suddenly no longer available, the body goes through withdrawal. Withdrawal is, at best, incredibly uncomfortable.2
Symptoms of Withdrawal
Some of the most common withdrawal symptoms are:
Vomiting, sweating and diarrhea (leading to hyponatremia)10
Tremors or shakes
Insomnia or excessive sleeping
Nightmares or vivid dreams
Other, more serious, side effects can include seizures and heart attacks2. In those situations, withdrawals can prove deadly. Much of the symptoms and their severity depends on the type of substance involved. For instance, alcohol dependency can be extremely dangerous to quit on your own, as can heroin addiction.3
Can Withdrawal Symptoms Kill You?
While withdrawal symptoms from most substances do not commonly lead to death, there are some cases where they can.4 Fortunately, withdrawal symptoms and their severity can be significantly reduced by seeking professional help.
There are also programs, such as medical detox programs, that can help a person through the detoxification process in a safe and effective way. These programs allow you to detox under medical supervision, sometimes with the aid of medications and supplements to prevent or alleviate symptoms.
Can I Prevent Withdrawal?
Withdrawal can be a very challenging and uncomfortable experience that can last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. However, there are ways to make the process easier and safer for yourself or your loved one.
A key way to make withdrawal easier is by tapering off the substance instead of quitting cold turkey. A detox calendar can help you plan the process by gradually reducing the amount of the substance you are taking over time. That way, your body can slowly adjust and get used to less of its desired chemical. Tapering can prevent some of the more serious side effects, such as seizures and even death, because your body is being given time to adjust.
However, it is not recommended to begin a tapering plan on your own.5 A professional should assess your situation and advise the best course of action. Many people choose to do this through an outpatient detox program. Another way to reduce the risk of serious side effects is by tapering and withdrawing in a professional facility. This will allow you to have access to professional counseling and medical supervision. You’ll also encounter others who can encourage you and help you each step of the way.
Whichever route you choose to handle withdrawal, it is important to do so in a safe and healthy way. There are many resources available to you if you are struggling with addiction and want to get clean. You can talk to your doctor, a therapist, or even a support group to get started on the road to recovery.
15 Years Experience by Professionals Who Understand Your Journey.
Here are some of the most common addictive drugs and more insight into their withdrawal symptoms.
The longer the addiction to alcohol has been going on, the more risk there is to experience withdrawal symptoms. The timeline of these symptoms and the length of the initial recovery period will vary depending on past behaviors of drinking, quantity consumed, and any current mental health issues already present. Unassisted alcohol withdrawal can cause heart palpitations, hallucinations, and seizures.
Hallucinations can be very disconcerting. They can be visual (a person may see things that are not there), auditory (hearing things that are not there), olfactory (smelling things that are not there), or tactile (feeling things that are not there). While not everyone will experience hallucinations, they most often appear a day after the last drink. Due to the severity of these symptoms, it is highly recommended you are under the care of a professional during all stages of alcohol withdrawal to ensure your safety.
Methamphetamine is a stimulant, meaning the chemicals in methamphetamine drastically increase brain activity. Withdrawal from methamphetamine can last up to two weeks.6 It can cause irregular heartbeats and even strokes when it occurs without tapering or in the absence of a professional. Withdrawal from methamphetamine can also cause severe depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
Opioids are a class of drugs that include prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and morphine, as well as illegal narcotics like heroin. When a person stops using opioids after being addicted, they can experience severe withdrawal symptoms.2 Opioid withdrawals can cause a person to have muscle spasms and seizures, as well as respiratory problems. The longer the addiction to opioids has been going on, the more the risk of death from withdrawal symptoms increases.
It is a common misconception that opiate withdrawal is not life-threatening, but it can be, though rare, where care was inadequate. Opiate withdrawal is extremely difficult and not recommended without proper medical oversight and care throughout the process.9
Can You Come Off Addictive Substances on Your Own?
“Do it yourself,” or DIY, addiction recovery methods can seem like a positive first step on your recovery journey. However, it is much safer—and much more effective—to seek backup from professionals to ensure that you detox safely and with an eye toward a life-long recovery. Though people often try to recover on their own, these attempts often lead to relapse, and relapse can lead to fatalities.
An example of a popular “do it yourself” method is quitting addictive substances cold turkey. Many people choose to attempt to quit using alcohol cold turkey. However, while alcohol is socially acceptable and easy to obtain, that doesn’t mean it is safe to simply stop drinking without attention to your body’s needs.
In fact, quitting alcohol cold turkey can be dangerous—alcohol withdrawal can cause seizures and organ damage when not done in a supervised medical setting.8 After heavy alcohol abuse, medically supervised detox is the safest starting point to avoid death. For all drugs including alcohol, follow the cessation period or during the tapering period for longer-term medication withdrawal, with building back physical health with revamped diet, replenishing the vitamins and minerals that drugs and alcohol stripped from the body to lessen cravings, improve mental clarity, engage in support via groups or personal counseling, or other resources to keep your sobriety intact. Your body, your brain, and your relationship with your substance of choice are all unique, and it is best to seek professional help to build a tapering strategy that will be safe for you.
Be Safe and Seek Professional Help for Drug Withdrawal
Trusted professionals have designed programs that serve to assist those who are struggling with addiction and seeking to minimize or eliminate the risks associated with withdrawal. Popular programs, such as inpatient treatment facilities, can reduce the risk of severe or life-threatening withdrawal symptoms with top-notch counseling and round-the-clock medical care and other assistance.9 If you or a loved one could benefit from treatment for withdrawal or considering taking the first step to recovery, it is best to do so under the guidance of a professional.
1. Mannelli, P., Wu, L. T., Peindl, K. S., & Gorelick, D. A. (2013). Smoking and opioid detoxification: behavioral changes and response to treatment. Nicotine & tobacco research : official journal of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, 15(10), 1705–1713. https://doi.org/10.1093/ntr/ntt046
2. Hodding, G. C., Jann, M., & Ackerman, I. P. (1980). Drug withdrawal syndromes– a literature review. The Western journal of medicine, 133(5), 383–391.
3. Kosten, T. R., & George, T. P. (2002). The neurobiology of opioid dependence: implications for treatment. Science & practice perspectives, 1(1), 13–20. https://doi.org/10.1151/spp021113
4. Mitchell, S. G., Kelly, S. M., Brown, B. S., Reisinger, H. S., Peterson, J. A., Ruhf, A., Agar, M. H., & Schwartz, R. P. (2009). Incarceration and opioid withdrawal: the experiences of methadone patients and out-of-treatment heroin users. Journal of psychoactive drugs, 41(2), 145–152. https://doi.org/10.1080/02791072.2009.10399907
5. Framer, A. (2021). What I have learnt from helping thousands of people taper off antidepressants and other psychotropic medications. Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology. https://doi.org/10.1177/2045125321991274
This content has been reviewed and approved by a licensed physician.
Dr. Samuel Lee
Dr. Samuel Lee is a board-certified psychiatrist, specializing in a spiritually-based mental health discipline and integrative approaches. He graduated with an MD at Loma Linda University School of Medicine and did a residency in psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. He has also been an inpatient adult psychiatrist at Kaweah Delta Mental Health Hospital and the primary attending geriatric psychiatrist at the Auerbach Inpatient Psychiatric Jewish Home Hospital. In addition, he served as the general adult outpatient psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente. He is board-certified in psychiatry and neurology and has a B.A. Magna Cum Laude in Religion from Pacific Union College. His specialty is in natural healing techniques that promote the body’s innate ability to heal itself.
Lyle Murphy is the founder of the Alternative to Meds Center, a licensed residential program that helps people overcome dependence on psychiatric medication and addiction issues using holistic and psychotherapeutic methods.
Medical Disclaimer: Nothing on this Website is intended to be taken as medical advice. The information provided on the website is intended to encourage, not replace, direct patient-health professional relationships. Always consult with your doctor before altering your medications. Adding nutritional supplements may alter the effect of medication. Any medication changes should be done only after proper evaluation and under medical supervision.
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