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Understanding Withdrawal Symptoms

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For people struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, powerful withdrawal symptoms can quickly derail the recovery process. Recognizing withdrawal symptoms when they appear and having the right coping skills to weather the storm are an important part of preventing relapse.

As Medical News Today discusses, a person may experience withdrawal symptoms with any level of drug dependence. In other words, those that are physically dependent but not yet addicted may experience physical discomfort when the drug is withdrawn.1 Understanding that withdrawal symptoms go hand-in-hand with drug dependence can help you or a loved one recognize the signs of addiction early and get help.

Physical Dependence vs. Addiction

The National Institute on Drug Abuse provides the following definition of physical drug dependence:

  • Physical dependence on a drug happens when the body builds tolerance to the drug resulting in withdrawal symptoms when the familiar dosage is eliminated or substantially reduced.2

One of the additional signs that addiction has developed vs. drug tolerance is dramatic changes in behavior. Some of these behaviors include:

  • Making acquiring and consuming drugs a top priority, to the detriment of work, family, school, and other obligations.
  • Inability to stop using drugs even when the use destructive.

Closeup of eye and sweaty faceThe specific type of withdrawal symptoms a person experiences will depend both on the drug of abuse and the person’s individual biology, including any existing health conditions. While it is difficult to predict exactly what withdrawal symptoms will manifest until someone is in withdrawal, this process is often uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and can feature drug cravings (i.e., the body is signaling that it wants the drugs to which it has grown accustomed). A person going through withdrawal may have the desire to stop using, but the body’s desire for the drug can become overwhelming. During times of crisis, it’s important to remember that just as the body became dependent on the drug, it will eventually adapt to abstinence.

Signs and Symptoms of Withdrawal

It may be difficult for the untrained eye to detect that a person is going through drug withdrawal. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse provides insight into some of the most common withdrawal symptoms, ones that cut across many different drug types, including:

·       Jumpiness, anxiety and irritability ·       Sweating, shaking and trembling
·       Headaches ·       Loss of appetite
·       Depression ·       Nausea and vomiting
·       Fatigue ·       Needing to use drugs to steady nerves

In the most severe cases of withdrawal, a person may experience hallucinations, confusion, fever, and seizures. The drugs most associated with fatality during the withdrawal process are alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opiates.

Managing Withdrawal

Detox patient in hospital bedMedically-supervised detox programs are designed to help those struggling with addiction detox in a safe way. Medications to ease symptoms plus 24-hour medical monitoring can help protect you during the process. Attempting withdrawal at home or in another non-medically supervised setting may be dangerous and even deadly in some cases. The type of detox needed often depends on the drug of abuse and the length and severity of the addiction. The following are examples based on substances:

  • People experiencing mild alcohol withdrawal may be treated on an outpatient basis whereas those with moderate to severe alcohol abuse may require residential treatment or hospitalization.
  • Withdrawal from stimulant drugs is generally treated by observation alone and does not necessitate the use of any specific medications.
  • Opioid withdrawal may be treated with an opioid agonist, such as methadone or buprenorphine, as well as benzodiazepines to control muscle cramps and insomnia.
  • Withdrawal from central nervous system depressant may at first be treated with high doses of benzodiazepines or other sedatives.

During the withdrawal process, consulting physicians and professional staff members may offer over-the-counter drugs (such as pain relievers) to make the process more comfortable. In the case of opioid withdrawal, prescription medications may be used to safely taper the body off of opioid dependence. The use of opioid agonists to treat opioid dependence may also help to avoid a relapse. In the case of alcohol withdrawal, prescription sedative drugs, such as benzodiazepines, barbiturates, propofol and ethanol, may be used. Users of sedative drugs may be treated during withdrawal with long-acting benzodiazepine or phenobarbital drugs. It is important to note that at present only a few drugs are FDA-approved to treat addiction and for only specific drugs of abuse, such as the use of Suboxone to treat opiate addiction.

Finding Help for Addiction

Michael’s House offers a comprehensive range of rehab services. Located in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains in Palm Springs, California, our treatment center provides evidence-based addiction services in a peaceful natural setting. We are here to provide you with the greatest opportunities available to overcome addiction and achieve your true potential. Call our toll-free helpline 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about available treatment options.


1 Nordqvist, Christian. “Addiction: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International. 4 Jan. 2016. Accessed 21 Aug. 2017.

2 Abuse, National Institute on Drug. “Is there a difference between physical dependence and addiction?” NIDA. Dec. 2012. Accessed 21 Aug. 2017.

3 Wilcox, Stephen. “Signs and Symptoms.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. 19 Dec. 2016. Accessed 21 Aug. 2017.