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What are the Dangers of Withdrawal from Drugs and Alcohol?

dangers of acute withdrawal

Withdrawal is a term used to describe the symptoms your body experiences after quitting drugs and alcohol suddenly. The symptoms of withdrawal can be both psychological and physical, affecting a person’s quality of life. The severity of withdrawal symptoms, however, can vary, depending on a user’s level of dependence and the types of drugs being used. In some cases, withdrawal can be dangerous.

Withdrawal is the body’s way of attempting to normalize its chemistry, after becoming reliant on drugs or alcohol to function. This typically happens after an extended period of substance use, in response to an attempt to stop, and is a common part of the addiction cycle. When a person regularly uses a substance, it alters the chemistry of the brain over time. The user becomes dependent, as their brain and body’s systems demand more of the drug to operate. Taking that away disrupts the chemistry, therefore, and causes uncomfortable symptoms.

Ridding the body of drugs is a necessary step in overcoming addiction. The good news is that there are safe ways to do so and to avoid the dangers of withdrawal. Professional detox and treatment centers can greatly reduce the risk of dangerous and potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.

Yes, we said life-threatening symptoms. However, it’s important to know that most withdrawal symptoms are not fatal, though they can be extremely uncomfortable. Also keep in mind that, in a controlled and supervised medical environment, this discomfort can be alleviated—and any high risks can be greatly reduced.

Why Is Withdrawal Dangerous?

Right now, you may be wondering, “What makes withdrawal dangerous?” and “Just how dangerous is withdrawal actually?” Whether it is you or your loved one struggling with addiction, it’s important to gather the facts.

As noted above, withdrawal happens because the body is trying to rebound from long-term drug abuse. The body has become physiologically dependent on drugs to function. When drugs are removed from the body’s systems, it can go into a state of shock. There is risk of certain functions shutting down.

Different substances can cause different withdrawal symptoms, and some are more dangerous than others. For example, heroin and prescription opioid withdrawal might cause flu-like symptoms, such as fever and fatigue. Withdrawal from benzos, or benzodiazepines, can trigger panic attacks, heart palpitations, and seizures. Even alcohol withdrawal can create extreme side effects like dizziness, tremors, and vomiting. You can explore common withdrawal symptoms here.

Withdrawal is also unpredictable, which contributes to its danger. There is no way to fully predict how your body will react to stopping substance use. For this reason, it is important to avoid quitting drugs on your own, suddenly, without supervision or medical support. 

Another risk of withdrawal is the potential for prolonged use, relapse, and overdose. When you stop using substances, your body can experience pain and discomfort. Many people will try to bear and grin this discomfort for a few days, but after some time, choose to go back to using drugs because it is easier. Drug use eases those difficult symptoms because you are giving the body what it demands. The problem is, relapse only prolongs the addiction cycle. It also increases the risk of overdose, if a person’s tolerance has lessened during the time that they quit.

It is worth noting that there are two categories of withdrawal, each posing their own dangers and each needing to be addressed slightly differently:

  • Acute withdrawal is the initial response your body will have after stopping drug use. The symptoms will usually appear as soon as your body enters that phase of withdrawal, and can last for several weeks. Typically, acute withdrawal symptoms present the opposite effects as the drug of choice. For example, a person addicted to Xanax (their anxiety medication) may experience severe anxiety when withdrawing from this drug.
  • Protracted withdrawal, on the other hand, is long-term withdrawal symptoms. Sometimes referred to as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), this essentially means that the difficult symptoms have lasted more than several weeks, or have re-appeared after several weeks since stopping the drug use. 

Both types of withdrawal can cause relapse, but protracted withdrawal is typically the larger culprit of relapse if not treated in a professional setting. Protracted withdrawal also often leads to mental health disorders, if left unaddressed.

Dangerous Withdrawal Symptoms

Certain drugs bring increased risk of dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Specifically, evidence shows that opiate, benzodiazepine, and alcohol withdrawal can be most extreme and potentially life-threatening. Therefore, it is important not to attempt the detoxification process at home. There are professionals who are equipped to help you break out of the grip of these addictive substances. Below are examples of the dangers of withdrawal from alcohol, benzos, and opiates.

Dangers of Benzodiazepine Withdrawal

  • Seizures
  • Panic attacks
  • Heart palpitations or irregular heartbeat
  • Hypertension
  • Depression, which often leads to suicide

Dangers of Opiate Withdrawal

Dangers of Alcohol Withdrawal

  • Hallucinations
  • Heart palpitations or elevated heart rate
  • Seizures 
  • Delirium tremens (DTs)
  • Overactivity of the central nervous system, and in turn, brain damage

Delirium tremens is a rare, yet concerning side effect that can occur from withdrawal. Delirium tremens can cause convulsions, hallucinations, disorientation, palpitations, and even hypothermia, on top of other withdrawal symptoms. This condition is considered a medical emergency.

How to Avoid the Dangers of Withdrawal

Although the withdrawal process can be difficult and, in some cases, dangerous, it’s important to know that overcoming this period is possible and important. Withdrawal symptoms typically subside within a matter of days or weeks, depending on your drug of choice. And, of course, there is support available to you throughout this process. You should never go through withdrawal alone. 

A professional detox program, followed by a continuing care or long-term drug treatment program, are valuable assets in breaking free from the addiction cycle. The National Institute on Drug Abuse highlights this, suggesting that detoxification and “medically-managed withdrawal” make up the first, essential phase of treatment. However, detox alone is not enough. Long-term drug addiction treatment is needed to maintain sobriety and a successful recovery, and to build the skills needed to live a drug-free life.

A long-term, inpatient drug treatment program can help you conquer your drug cravings and get you to a state of positive, healthy living. In a treatment program, you will find the therapy and tools needed to sustain a life without drugs or alcohol. You can also avoid, and learn how to prevent, relapse in a sober living program, and receive treatment for any prolonged withdrawal symptoms. If you are struggling with mental health issues in addition to your drug use, a dual diagnosis treatment program is also recommended to manage any difficult symptoms that came from the withdrawal period.

Taking the first step into a detox or treatment program can be scary, but it is essential. Quitting drugs alone is never recommended, due to the dangers that withdrawal can pose. If you are looking to quit your drug addiction, or seeking help for a loved one, know we are here to help. You can always call Turnbridge for advice on finding a treatment program, or simply to learn more about our treatment programs for young men and women. Call 877-581-1793 to learn more.