Drug Withdrawal Symptoms: Prescription, Illicit, and Alcohol

Withdrawal Symptoms: Prescription, Illicit, and Alcohol – People who abruptly stop or dramatically cut back their use of addictive substances often encounter withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can be physically and psychologically unpleasant and sometimes painful. Withdrawals are the result of the body struggling to regain equilibrium without the substance to which the brain and body have become accustomed.

What Causes Withdrawal Symptoms?

Withdrawal symptoms are, in essence, the physiological and psychological effects of detox from drugs or alcohol. Withdrawal symptoms manifest because a person’s brain has adapted to the persistent presence of a substance and can no longer function normally without it. This condition is also known as dependence.

Acute manifestations only last for a few days, while protracted withdrawal can last months. The intensity can range from mild to life-threatening, based on the person’s age, physical health, psychological features such as mental health disorders, duration of use and the type of substance(s) being consumed.


Withdrawal Symptoms | Harmony Ridge Recovery Center

Alcohol Withdrawal

Long-term, heavy drinkers who decide to quit abruptly face the risk of developing unpleasant and even dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Clammy skin
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Delerium
  • Seizures

These symptoms can manifest as soon as eight hours of the last drink. Individuals may feel fatigued and experience changes in sleep quality and mood for months. Serious effects, such as high fevers, confusion, and seizures, have also been known to develop. In extreme cases, withdrawal can result in death.

Delirium tremens, also known as DTs, is a severe manifestation of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. The condition is hallmarked by a state of confusion that produces hallucinations, delusions, and severe agitation. The mortality rate among those who experience DTs is 5-25%. Delirium tremens is considered a medical emergency and should be treated immediately.

Prescription Drugs

Opioid Withdrawal

Prescription drug abuse has increased dramatically since 2000, with a rising number of people abusing painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin, sometimes in combination with benzodiazepines or alcohol. Opioid withdrawal symptoms can be divided into two categories. Early symptoms develop within the first 24 hours of last use and late symptoms onset thereafter.

Early Withdrawal Symptoms

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Watery eyes (lacrimation)
  • Runny nose
  • Muscle aches
  • Sweating
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia

Late Withdrawal Symptoms

  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea & vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Dilated pupils
  • Blurry vision
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • High blood pressure

Benzodiazepine Withdrawal

Benzodiazepines (benzos) are commonly prescribed depressants that are used to treat anxiety, insomnia panic disorders, and seizures. They reduce activity in the brain and depress the central nervous system, inducing drowsiness and feeling of relaxation and calm in users.

While there are many therapeutic uses for benzos, there are also some disadvantages. Benzos have a high potential for abuse, and it’s entirely possible to become physically and psychologically addicted to these drugs, even when used as directed by a physician. In fact, dependence can occur in as little as six weeks following regular use.

Many people begin taking benzos with a legitimate prescription but then find they enjoy how the drugs make them feel and continue using them illicitly. Over time, they may also use benzos with alcohol or other drugs to enhance these pleasurable feelings. This behavior is extremely dangerous and significantly increases the risk of overdose and life-threatening complications.

If you are using benzos on a regular basis, you may experience a cluster of withdrawal symptoms if you abruptly discontinue use. These symptoms may include the following:

  • Muscle weakness or pain
  • Excessive sweating
  • Unsteadiness or dizziness
  • Sleeplessness
  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Depression
  • Stomach pain and cramping
  • Shaking
  • Headaches
  • Sensitivity to lights, smells, and sounds
  • Vision problems
  • Feeling detached from reality

Like alcohol, detoxing from benzodiazepines can result in severe withdrawal symptoms, and therefore, a professional detox is the safest method of withdrawal for those trying to quit benzodiazepines.

Illicit Drugs

Withdrawal Symptoms | Harmony Ridge Recovery Center

Heroin Withdrawal

Heroin withdrawal is often characterized by flu-like symptoms that can occur due to dependence and discontinuation of use. Heroin impacts the brain’s reward system, over time increasing the user’s tolerance to the drug’s effects.

People struggling with heroin addiction often keep using to avoid the extremely unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal. Abusing heroin induces effects comparable to painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, only more intense.

Symptoms of heroin withdrawal may include the following:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • Diarrhea
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Muscle aches

Heroin users can encounter withdrawal symptoms within twelve hours of their last dose. As noted, withdrawal from heroin may parallel those of prescription opioids, but because heroin leaves the user’s system faster than painkillers, withdrawal can onset more rapidly and severely. The worst pain and discomfort from heroin can last up to one week – about as long as a bad flu, with symptoms peaking around the second or third day.

Cocaine Withdrawal

Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant, known for the energetic and euphoric feelings it produces.

Cocaine withdrawal symptoms may include the following:

  • Memory loss
  • Fatigue
  • Moodiness
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • Social isolation
  • Increased appetite
  • Paranoia
  • Seizures

About half of those addicted to cocaine also experience a mental health condition such as depression or attention-deficit disorder, and suicidal thoughts are not uncommon.

Although physical symptoms of withdrawal are mild or non-existent when compared to some other psychoactive substances, cocaine use can produce cravings as intense as nearly any other drug, and these cravings can persist for months.

Meth Withdrawal

The symptoms of withdrawal from methamphetamine (meth) vary between individuals, and the severity of withdrawal symptoms often depends on how excessively and frequently the drug was used.

Other factors, such as the method used to consume the drug (e.g., smoking or injecting), can also affect the intensity of withdrawal symptoms. Typically, those who inject meth will encounter a longer, more severe withdrawal process.

Withdrawal Symptoms | Harmony Ridge Recovery Center

Common meth withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Increased appetite
  • Agitation
  • Insomnia and fatigue
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Red, itchy eyes
  • Incoherent speech
  • Loss of motivation
  • Suicidal ideations

How to Manage Withdrawal Symptoms

Addiction withdrawal symptoms may persist for weeks. For this reason, medical assistance during detox can be essential for a person’s emotional and physical well-being. Many rehab centers, such as Harmony Ridge Recovery, specialize in both addiction and mental health treatment and can provide the tools and support patients need to ensure a safe and effective detox.

Medications can often be administered to ease withdrawals. During alcohol withdrawal, for example, doctors may administer Ativan, a benzodiazepine. As the symptoms abate, patients are tapered off the medications to avoid an additional dependency.

Several medications can be used to treat opioid withdrawal, such as Suboxone, buprenorphine or naltrexone help ease cravings and reduce unpleasant symptoms. These medications are used in conjunction with intensive therapy to manage severe withdrawals and co-occurring mental health disorders.

In addition to administering appropriate medication, professional medical staff will monitor electrolyte and body fluid levels as well as vital signs. Following detox, patients are encouraged to enroll in an integrated addiction treatment program that includes psychotherapy, counseling, support groups, or sober housing.

Withdrawal from drugs and alcohol can be a very uncomfortable process but can be overcome using the proper resources. If you or a loved one is considering detox or suffering from withdrawal symptoms, contact us today! We can help you recover and reclaim the fulfilling life you deserve!