What Happens to Your Body During Drug Withdrawal?

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Nearly 20% of people in the United States have used recreational drugs and over 20 million people over the age of 12 in the United States experience a substance use disorder. While people may want to stop using drugs, it can be difficult. Substance withdrawal—a syndrome with physical, behavioral, and cognitive symptoms that happens when a person stops using a substance after regular use—is one reason people struggle with this.

Despite the dangers and consequences of drug use, many people try substances such as alcohol, marijuana, heroin, and cocaine. While people of any gender experience substance misuse, it is more common among cisgender males. It can be challenging to stop using substances, especially after heavy or long-term use, because of substance withdrawal.

Learn more about substance use and withdrawal, symptoms, treatment, how to cope, and how to help someone going through withdrawal.

What Is Substance Use Disorder?

A medical condition that involves overuse or misuse of a substance such as prescription or recreational drug, alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine.

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Symptoms of Substance Withdrawal

Symptoms of substance withdrawal depend on the substance used. People may experience physical, behavioral, and cognitive symptoms when discontinuing substances. These symptoms may range from mild to severe depending on the person, their history of use, and the substance or substances used.

Make sure to talk with a healthcare provider before going through a substance detox (stopping use of a substance). In some cases, the process can be dangerous, as there are potential complications.

Alcohol

Over half of Americans aged 12 and older are considered current alcohol users, classified as drinking within the past month, and 15 million people experience alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal range from mild to severe. Delirium tremens (DTS) is a severe symptom of alcohol withdrawal involving extreme agitation, anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations, disorientation, tremors, sweating, increased heart rate, increased body temperature, and high blood pressure that can be fatal. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can last days or weeks.

Other symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may include:

Heroin

Heroin is a highly addictive opioid drug made from morphine, a mind-altering substance taken from the opium poppy plant. Heroin impacts the way a person feels pleasure and pain. It binds to opioid receptors in the brain and changing these sensations.

It is possible to overdose on heroin, which is when the use of the substance causes a reaction that can be fatal. Roughly 15,000 people die from heroin-related overdose each year.

Most heroin withdrawal symptoms end after a week, but some can last for months or years.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Aches and pains
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Changes in breathing
  • Chills
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Depression
  • Diarrhea
  • Goosebumps
  • Excessive yawning and fatigue
  • High blood pressure and increased heart rate
  • Leg movements that cannot be controlled
  • Nervousness
  • Runny nose
  • Shaking, restlessness, or leg movements that cannot be controlled
  • Spasms or tremors
  • Sweating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Upset stomach or vomiting
  • Watery eyes

Cocaine

Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant drug that increases dopamine (the "happy" chemical in the brain). This impacts the reward system and the way a person feels pleasure. Roughly 5.5 million Americans use cocaine each year, making it the second most used recreational drug in the U.S. following marijuana. Cocaine is highly toxic, even in small doses, and can cause acute cardiovascular or cerebrovascular emergencies and seizures.

While most cocaine withdrawal symptoms go away after a week to 10 days, some symptoms may last years.

Cocaine withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Aches and pains
  • Anxiety
  • Chills
  • Concentration challenges or slow thinking
  • Cravings
  • Depression, inability to feel pleasure or anhedonia
  • Difficulty becoming sexually aroused
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Exhaustion and fatigue
  • Increased appetite
  • Nightmares
  • Restlessness
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Tremors

Marijuana

Marijuana is a drug made from the cannabis hemp plant. Marijuana contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which causes its psychoactive effects. While marijuana is used medicinally for certain medical conditions, it can also negatively impact brain development, including thinking, memory, and learning. Most marijuana withdrawal symptoms go away after two weeks, but some can last months.

Marijuana withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Anger or grumpiness
  • Anxiety
  • Cravings or decreased appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping, nightmares, and night sweats
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Shaking

Treatment

Withdrawal treatment depends on the substance used, the severity of the symptoms, and the needs of the person going through withdrawal.

Treatment options for withdrawal may include:

  • Talk therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that is used to treat substance withdrawal and addiction, including people with cocaine addiction.
  • Support groups: Many people struggling with substance use have found help through groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA), among other groups.
  • Medications: A variety of medications may be used to help with substance withdrawal and/or it's symptoms, including antidepressants and supplements. lofexidine is a prescription medication used to treat people going through opioid withdrawal.

How to Cope

Coping with substance withdrawal and addiction can be a challenge. However, it does not have to be faced alone. Support groups are available for addiction and even for addiction to specific substances such as alcohol, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana. Additionally, there are things that can be done at home to help alleviate symptoms of withdrawal, such as eating a healthy, well-balanced diet.

Tips for coping with substance withdrawal:

  • Discuss options and risks with a healthcare provider to choose the best methods for you
  • Make a plan with a healthcare provider in case of complications
  • Seek the support of a trusted friend or family member
  • Practice stress management techniques
  • Engage in activities or hobbies that distract you from substance use
  • Take a break from spending time with others who use substances
  • Become aware of common symptoms specific to the substance and how to cope with them
  • Have healthy food options available and eat a well-balanced diet
  • Remain hydrated by drinking plenty of water
  • Recognize and address thoughts that do not support a substance-free life
  • Clear your home of all alcohol and drugs

Substance Use Helpline

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

How to Help

People experiencing addiction and going through substance withdrawal can benefit from the support of friends and family. This support can help with both the physical symptoms of withdrawal and the psychological side of addiction.

Many friends and family members of people who use substances want to help but are hesitant for various reasons or do not know where to start. Support is available for friends and family members through organizations such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon.

Tips to help someone going through addiction or withdrawal:

  • Understand that it is a serious medical condition, not a character flaw
  • Make sure the environment is free of alcohol and drugs
  • Educate yourself on the withdrawal process, challenges, and potential complications
  • Have a plan ready in case of challenges and complications
  • Get professional support for yourself
  • Become familiar with local resources such as support groups, hotlines, or rehabilitation centers
  • Have healthy food options available
  • Provide distraction through games, activities, and conversation
  • Provide an empathic, listening ear
  • Make a connection with a support group for long-term coping

Summary

Substance misuse and addiction are serious health concerns. Withdrawal happens when a person who has become reliant on a substance discontinues the use of that substance.

The symptoms of withdrawal can be both physical and psychological, and range from mild to severe depending on the substance, the person, and the history of use. For example, delirium tremens is a severe, life-threatening symptom of alcohol withdrawal that involves tremors and disorientation.

While safe withdrawal may be possible at home, medical intervention may be needed to provide medications and life-saving support. Many people in recovery also find support groups to be a helpful resource to lean on.

A Word From Verywell

Substance addiction and withdrawal are challenging for those who use substances, as well as for those around them, including friends and family members. If you are someone you know is experiencing substance addiction or withdrawal, help is available. There are things that can be done to make the process easier. Reach out to a healthcare provider, such as a primary care practitioner, psychologist, or addiction specialist for support.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What makes drugs addictive?

    Drugs are addictive because they change the way people feel and think. For example, drug use may change the way a person feels pleasure and train the brain to continue using the substance so they can continue to feel that way, essentially making the person think that the way the feel with the drug is normal and without it is bad.

  • What are the most addictive drugs?

    Heroine, cocaine, and alcohol are three of the most addictive substances.

  • How long does drug withdrawal last?

    Depending on the substance, drug withdrawal can last days, usually three to five days, or longer. While the physical withdrawal symptoms generally go away within a week to 10 days, emotional symptoms can last longer.

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12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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