Drug withdrawal symptoms can range from very mild to very severe depending on the circumstances, but can drug withdrawal be deadly? Here’s what you need to know before you attempt to detox on your own.
If you are physically dependent or addicted to a drug, quitting will send your body into a period of withdrawal. During drug withdrawal, your body is adjusting to the lack of drugs and re-learning how to function without them. This process can be extremely uncomfortable and may make you feel sick. General drug withdrawal symptoms usually include:
- Digestive problems
- Loss of appetite1
The type of symptoms you experience, their severity, and how long they last will vary depending on certain factors like how long you’ve been abusing drugs or alcohol, your age, your physical health, the type of drugs you abused, and the method of withdrawal (whether you quit cold turkey, tapered, or quit with medical assistance).
While most of the symptoms listed above are not deadly, they can be uncomfortable or may even cause more serious complications such as dehydration or suicidal behaviors. As a result, it’s often easier and safer to detox in a medically-assisted environment like a detox center.
Dangers of Drug Withdrawal
Certain types of drug withdrawal can be more dangerous than others. It’s impossible to say exactly how long withdrawal will last, but generally, it’s anywhere from two days to one week or longer. This is a long time to experience uncomfortable physical and psychological symptoms, especially without any medical assistance.
During drug withdrawal, some individuals may also face unforeseen medical emergencies such as seizures or loss of consciousness. Without medical help, these situations can quickly become serious emergencies and result in serious injury or death.
While the risks involved with drug withdrawal vary from person to person, some of the most common causes of drug withdrawal deaths are dehydration, hypernatraemia (elevated blood sodium level), and heart failure.
Medically-assisted drug detox greatly reduces the risks and dangers of drug withdrawal and can make the whole process much easier and safer.
Risks of Quitting Drugs Cold Turkey
Quitting drugs cold turkey or DIY drug detox may be appealing to some people because it’s cheaper and you don’t have to ask for help to do it. However, that doesn’t mean it’s the better choice.
Quitting drugs cold turkey can be very dangerous, especially if you’re trying to stop drinking alcohol, taking benzodiazepines like Ambien, Valium, or Xanax, or opiates like heroin, oxycodone, or hydrocodone. Aside from general discomfort, these drugs can produce life-threatening withdrawal symptoms if you’re addicted and suddenly try to stop using them.
Although it’s often more difficult to admit you’re struggling and ask for help, medical detox drastically reduces the risks associated with quitting drugs cold turkey. You don’t have to subject yourself to the discomfort and health risks of the cold turkey method. A medical detox program can provide safe, effective care for people with all types of drug addictions of varying severity.
When is Drug Withdrawal Deadly?
Sometimes drug withdrawal can be deadly, but this is not true all the time. Certain drugs can cause more severe withdrawal symptoms, which can increase your personal health risks while detoxing, especially if you choose to do it without medical assistance. The following types of drugs are not only some of the most difficult drugs to detox from, but they can cause withdrawal symptoms that can be deadly if you attempt to quit cold turkey or use an at-home detox program.
General symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal include:
- Insomnia/trouble staying asleep
- Panic attacks
- Hand tremors
- Difficulty concentrating
- Weight loss
- Muscle pain and stiffness
- Changes in perception
- Depersonalization (feeling like you’re not real or have no identity)2
The psychological symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal are the most dangerous and can lead to suicidal thoughts or behaviors if they go unmonitored.
General symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Cloudy thoughts
- Loss of appetite
- Rapid heart rate
- Alcohol cravings3
Alcohol withdrawal after chronic, heavy use is best completed under medical supervision. Someone who is severely addicted to alcohol and has been abusing it for a long time is more likely to experience severe symptoms like fever, nausea, diarrhea, and delirium tremens (DTs), all of which can be life-threatening.
General symptoms of opiate withdrawal include:
- Dilated pupils
- Muscle aches
- Teary eyes
- Runny nose
Opiate withdrawal is generally not deadly, but death can occur due to complications. Persistent vomiting and diarrhea can easily lead to dehydration, especially if a person tries to detox without medical supervision. Severe dehydration can lead to high sodium levels in the blood which can cause heart failure.4
Withdrawal symptoms from polydrug abuse (the abuse of more than one drug simultaneously) are often more severe. As a result, treatment is also more complex. If you are addicted to several different drugs and/or alcohol, medical treatment is necessary for detox because withdrawal symptoms can be unpredictable and severe. Causes of death may vary but could include seizures, heart failure, or psychological side effects like suicidal thoughts and behaviors.5
Relapse and Overdose After Detox
The risk of death due to drug withdrawal can even continue after detox. Once you have successfully gotten sober and completed drug withdrawal, your body no longer has the tolerance it once had for certain drugs or alcohol. As a result, if you try to take the same dosage of drugs you used to while you were addicted, you could easily suffer from an overdose or die.
People who have recently detoxed but are not enrolled in a treatment program may be more likely to overdose than those who are actively involved in a recovery program. Post-detox cravings, stressful circumstances, or high-risk situations like a family member using drugs at home could all cause a relapse, especially when there is a lack of sobriety support.
The best way to prevent relapse and overdose after detox is to enroll in an addiction treatment program immediately after completing detox. This will provide ongoing support, behavioral therapy, and other evidence-based treatments that will help you make a lasting lifestyle change. After all, recovery is about more than just abstaining from drugs and alcohol; it’s a complete rehabilitation of the mind, body, and soul. A rehab program can provide the comprehensive care you need to maintain your sobriety after detox.
Find Safe, Comfortable Drug Withdrawal
If you want to get sober, there are many reasons to consider an inpatient detox program instead of quitting cold turkey or using at-home detox methods.
- Medical detox is safer than at-home detox or quitting cold turkey.
- Medical detox provides treatment for withdrawal symptoms and is therefore much more comfortable.
- Medical detox greatly reduces your risk of relapse.
- Medical detox can give you peace of mind about your own health and safety or that of a loved one.
- Medical detox provides additional recovery support services, such as H&I meetings, music and art activities, group and individual therapy sessions, family support, and nutritious meals that boost your physical recovery.
- Medical detox programs often provide referrals for ongoing care at trusted rehab facilities, so you can continue your recovery with a personalized treatment program that addresses your personal needs.