If you’ve been misusing drugs or alcohol, one thought that’s likely never crossed your mind is what happens after. We never consider what can happen after the fact. The problem with drugs and alcohol is that using them socially can lead to a life of disaster. If you’ve ever wondered,
“Can you die from withdrawal?” the answer is yes. We’ll explain why professional treatment and detox are necessary.
Is Drug Withdrawal Deadly?
Alcohol is among the most dangerous drugs on the planet, but it’s easily accessible if you’re 21 years old or older. Some events even encourage drinking. Some people plan their entire weekend around this. While most of us won’t have issues, some will. Your social alcohol consumption can become a problem where you can’t function without a drink. It can lead to drinking before work, going to social gatherings, and even reaching a point where you need a drink to get out of bed. Again, we don’t think about the consequences of our actions, and we don’t consider the dangers of withdrawal.
The most bizarre aspect of alcohol is its legality. Alcohol withdrawal is also one of the most serious conditions a person can face. Other notoriously dangerous illicit drugs like heroin, fentanyl, and other opioids are known for overdose deaths. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 80,816 people lost their lives as a result of an opioid overdose in 2021 alone. Of the opioid family, fentanyl is the most dangerous drug on the planet, but withdrawal symptoms are still not as dangerous as alcohol. However, someone who quits fentanyl goes into withdrawal and starts using it again can lose their life, which makes opioid withdrawal destructive.
No matter the drug you’re using, withdrawals are imminent – the severity of it depends on specific factors, such as how long you’ve been using the drug, how much of it you’re taking, how you’re abusing the drug, and if it’s in conjunction with other substances. Even prescription drugs like benzodiazepines are extremely dangerous. If you’ve reached a point where you’re tired of the endless cycle of waking up feeling sick, stealing to support your habit, purchasing drugs, and repeating until you fall asleep, you should never do it cold turkey. Withdrawal is dangerous and potentially deadly, meaning you must seek professional help.
Below, we’ll delve into the types of withdrawal symptoms you can expect from various drugs and explain the benefits of getting treatment.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
If you drink alcohol a few times a month, you shouldn’t be too concerned about alcohol withdrawal. Even if you drink a glass of wine daily, your chances of going through withdrawal are minimal. However, if you’ve been drinking heavily for weeks, months, or even years, you will encounter mental and physical alcohol withdrawal symptoms. While most cases will only be mild to moderate, they can become severe. If you’ve gone through alcohol withdrawal in the past, you’re more likely to go through it again if you try to stop.
Alcohol is a depressant that slows down brain functioning and alters how your nerves send messages. The longer you drink, your body will adjust to its presence in your system. Your body works much harder to stay awake when intoxicated, so when you drink less or stop altogether, your brain is in overdrive, which leads to withdrawal.
The most common alcohol withdrawal symptoms six hours after your last drink include:
- Shaky hands
The symptoms will start as minor. If you’re a heavy drinker, more severe problems like hallucinations can occur between 12 and 48 hours after your last drink. This is when you can also experience seizures. Between 48 and 72 hours, you can experience the most dangerous and life-threatening symptoms. Delirium tremens (DTs) are extremely dangerous and include vivid hallucinations and delusions. Only 5 percent of people will experience them, but it consists of fever, high blood pressure, confusion, and heavy sweating. These are often fatal.
Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms
As mentioned above, opioid withdrawal is seldom fatal. However, that doesn’t mean withdrawal itself can’t kill you. It’s still considered a life-threatening medical condition. During opioid withdrawal, an individual is known to sweat, vomit, and have severe diarrhea, which can all lead to dehydration. While it’s mostly seen as extremely uncomfortable, there are cases of opioid withdrawal deaths caused by dehydration and heart failure.
Opioids are unique because they serve a vital purpose in our society. A significant portion of the U.S. population struggles with chronic pain. Opioids like oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, and morphine play a role in treating acute and chronic pain. After an accident, it’s common for a first responder to administer morphine. After surgery, your doctor likely prescribes the lowest dose of an opioid to manage the pain. Unfortunately, opioids are extremely addictive, causing doctors to walk a fine line between treating their patients and avoiding turning someone into an addict.
Like alcohol, all opioids are depressants, which slow down central nervous system (CNS) functioning. Your body slowly becomes tolerant of the drug in your system. When you stop taking opioids or lower your dose, you can expect the following symptoms:
- Increased tearing
- Dilated pupils
- Muscle aches
- Abdominal cramping
Symptoms typically appear 12 hours after your last dose and persist for a week. In some cases, a person can develop post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) and have their symptoms last for months or even years.
Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Symptoms
Like opioids, prescription benzodiazepines also serve a vital purpose in our society. Anxiety, insomnia, and epilepsy are sometimes debilitating conditions that ruin a person’s quality of life. The inability to leave home, fall asleep at night, or experience seizures are incredibly challenging. However, benzodiazepines like Xanax and Ativan help minimize the side effects of those conditions. Even when used as prescribed, they can cause severe withdrawal symptoms. Like alcohol, benzodiazepines are incredibly dangerous and potentially life-threatening. You must never stop using these cold turkey or without doctor supervision.
Doctors rarely prescribe these drugs for longer than 14 days at a time because of the risk of dependence. As central nervous system depressants, they regulate GABA levels in the brain. Without it in your system, your body cannot produce enough on its own, leading to severe withdrawal symptoms. Grand mal seizures are the most dangerous symptoms and often result in death without proper treatment.
Other benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms include:
- Rebound anxiety (when the anxiety you were taking the medication for returns worse than before)
- Muscle pain
- Severe panic attacks
- Grand mal seizures
The timeline is dependent on the type of benzo taken. For example, Xanax is a short-acting benzo, meaning symptoms can appear in as little as ten hours. Longer-acting benzos like Valium may not present symptoms until two or three days after your last dose.
Professional Treatment and Medical Detox
The primary issue with drug and alcohol withdrawal is that it’s unpredictable. Your friend might have drunk more alcohol for longer than you but experienced minimal withdrawal symptoms. You may have consumed much less for a shorter period and experienced them much worse. There is no formula to predict how severe withdrawal symptoms can be, so you must seek professional treatment. The withdrawal symptoms listed above may not even be what you experience. It’s an extremely dangerous and potentially deadly period where you should place your faith in medical professionals. They’ll walk you through it from start to finish.
The first and most critical step is medical detox. When you stop drinking, you must immediately go there. A team of highly trained professionals will ask you questions and prepare you for the process. You must be honest about what drugs you’ve been using, for how long, and if you’ve been misusing other substances as well. Once completed, they’ll provide medication that minimizes your symptoms. They’ll keep a watchful eye on you around the clock until you’re cleared.
From here, the journey is far from over. If you’ve reached a point where you need detox because your withdrawals are so severe, you need additional care. Detox will not get to the core of your problem. In an inpatient/outpatient program, therapy will address the root causes of your drinking and work with you to overcome it. If you’re ready to get help, don’t wait another day.