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Withdrawal: The Details are in the Drugs

Ask anyone going through drug or alcohol withdrawal how they feel and they’ll likely compare it to being hit by a speeding locomotive. From total body aches and fits of sweating to headaches and feelings of depression, breaking an addiction is certainly not without its difficulties.

Despite the sweeping generalization of simply feeling terrible, the physical and mental withdrawal symptoms experienced are absolutely dependent on the substance of abuse.

So, what can you expect during the withdrawal process? Let’s take a look at some commonly abused substances and their unique withdrawal symptoms.

Opiates

When you’re experiencing withdrawal from opiates – pain medications like morphine, codeine, Oxycontin, Dilaudid and heroin – involves early symptoms like anxiety, muscle aches, insomnia, sweating and yawning and late symptoms like diarrhea, dilated pupils and vomiting.

“Heroin, or opiate, withdrawal is the gold standard of addiction withdrawal. Imagine the worst flu of your life,” says Dr. Adi Jaffe. “Think excruciating pain throughout as your pain sensors get turned back on after being blocked for way too long

“Opioid withdrawal reactions are very uncomfortable but are not life-threatening,” according data from the National Institute of Health. Symptoms typically begin within 12 hours of last heroin usage and about 30 hours following methadone.

Methamphetamines

Withdrawal from stimulants like methamphetamine is quite different from that of opiates. The difference is due to the drugs’ action within the brain. While opiates attach to your brain’s pain receptors, meth controls your dopamine levels and actively destroys the number of dopamine receptors available in the brain.

People who quit meth often experience a state of anhedonia, or an inability to feel pleasure. With no feelings or sensations of pleasure, severe clinical depression can occur in the absence of proper treatment.

“Things that bring a smile to a normal person's face just don't work on most crystal-meth addicts who are new to recovery,” Jaffe explains. “As if that wasn't bad enough, it can take as long as two years of staying clean for the dopamine function of an ex meth-addict to look anything like a normal person's.”

In addition, frequent bouts of inactivity, sleepiness, carbohydrate cravings and even some forms of psychosis can accompany the severe depression.

Alcohol

Finally, we have alcohol. Despite being sold and marketed to the very fabric of society, some of the worst – and most dangerous – withdrawal symptoms are actually attributed to alcohol. In fact, alcohol withdrawal is so dangerous that it earned its own name: Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS).

As you might have guessed, AWS can be (and often is) life-threatening. For this reason, people are never advised to quit drinking cold turkey.

Common Symptoms of AWS

AWS symptoms can last for several weeks and include:

  • Tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Headache
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Irritability
  • Confusion
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares

Delirium Tremens Symptoms

During AWS, a worst-case scenario would typically involve hallucinations and seizures. The most severe type of AWS – known as delirium tremens – is an absolute medical emergency. Those symptoms include:

  • Extreme confusion and agitation
  • Fever
  • Seizures
  • Tactile hallucinations (e.g., itching, burning, and numbness)
  • Auditory hallucinations (e.g., hearing non-existent sounds)
  • Visual hallucinations (e.g., seeing non-existent images)

 

 

Learn more about the medical detoxification process and how it prevents or lessens withdrawal symptoms.

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