Learn / Can Withdrawal Kill You?

Can Withdrawal Kill You?

Grace Ogren
 June 5th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Dr. Malasri Chaudhery-Malgeri, Ph.D.

Key Points

  • Withdrawal symptoms can be deadly.
  • Some withdrawals feel uncomfortable, but won't hurt you.
  • Medical care and medications can ease your symptoms.

Without proper care, the withdrawal symptoms from certain substances could kill you. A symptom this extreme depends on what you’ve been taking, how much, and how long you’ve been taking it. 

Not every drug has dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Some, though extremely uncomfortable, won’t hurt you. But alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opiates have the potential to be deadly.

After discussing your situation with your doctor or care team, you might decide to detox in a licensed, medically monitored detox environment. Many rehab centers with detox offer just this. 

What Causes Withdrawal Symptoms?

Your brain and body get used to drugs or alcohol and adapt to work around them. Once you stop taking substances, your body has to adjust to life without them. So, you experience withdrawal symptoms as your body returns to homeostasis1. Though the change is arguably good, your body still has to adjust—which might not feel good at all. 

If you’ve become highly dependent, stopping becomes dangerous. In those cases, you can seek treatment in a detox center or a residential rehab with detox. Detox centers treat non-life-threatening withdrawal symptoms too. Your comfort and safety both matter. 

Withdrawals vary across the different types of drugs and substances. Some pose no threat. Others require careful supervision. 

Alcohol Withdrawal

Detoxing from alcohol2 could be dangerous. The level of danger, and general symptom intensity, depends on how much you drink and how long you’ve been drinking. 

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms2 could include 

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shaking
  • Delirium tremens (DT)
  • Insomnia
  • Hallucinations
  • Extreme confusion
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Excessive, purposeless activity (getting in and out of bed, wandering around)
  • Anxiety
  • Grand mal seizures

Delirium tremens commonly affect those with a long history of drinking. DT’s symptoms3 include “profound confusion, autonomic hyperactivity, and cardiovascular collapse.” It’s rare, but needs to be caught as soon as possible to avoid danger. 

The other symptoms of alcohol detox may feel gross, but don’t tend to be life-threatening—especially under the supervision of doctors and nurses. Then, medications like Antabuse can help you stay sober4 in recovery.

Opiate Withdrawal

Opioid withdrawals can feel like a bad flu5, or the sickest you’ve felt in your entire life. Typically, though, it’s not one of the withdrawals that can kill you. The severity of symptoms depends on your dose and how long you’ve been taking opioids. 

The discomfort of opiate withdrawals can make you crave opioids even more. For many, temptations to alleviate the pain can cause a relapse5. Detoxing in a residential setting could help you avoid this in your early days of recovery.

During your opioid detox period, you might experience

  • Diarrhea
  • Dysphoria
  • Goosebumps
  • Restless legs
  • Muscle pains
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Malaise
  • High heart rate

You can die from dehydration during opioid withdrawals6, caused by excessive vomiting and diarrhea. This catastrophic effect usually happens in jails, where prompt (and sufficient) medical care isn’t as common. 

Medications can curb the effects of opioid withdrawals7. For opioid detox, your doctor may prescribe methadone, buprenorphine, clonidine, and lofexidine. Each operates in different ways to diminish cravings and make withdrawals more comfortable. You can continue to take these medications to maintain your sobriety.

Heroin Withdrawal

As a short-acting opioid, heroin’s withdrawals typically set in 8-24 hours after your last dose7. They can last 4-10 days. 

Heroin’s withdrawal symptoms mimic a very bad flu. Turning to opioid-agonists, like methadone, can help you taper off high doses and maintain sobriety. Methadone relieves cravings and discomfort without the euphoric rush of heroin and other opioids8, making it non-addictive at the proper dose. 

And, using a maintenance medication like methadone reduces the risk of relapse by satisfying cravings8. This can also prevent HIV and infections caused by needle sharing—and, largely, relapse in general. 

Benzodiazepine Withdrawal

Depending on your dose and length of use, benzodiazepine withdrawals can be life threatening. Benzos treat anxiety and sleep disorders5 but could become addictive if used too long. Detoxing from benzos presents several dangers.

Benzo withdrawals resemble alcohol withdrawals5, which have a death risk. For that reason, you’ll likely need to detox in a medically monitored setting, like a hospital or residential rehab. Here’s what you might experience during benzodiazepine detox9:

  • Seizures
  • Muscle pains
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Agitation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hand tremors
  • Excessive sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Catatonia
  • Death

Withdrawal symptoms usually begin 2-10 days after your last dose and can last 2-8 weeks. You can manage the symptoms by gradually weaning off benzodiazepines5, which gives your body time to adjust to lower doses. Going cold turkey, or stopping all at once, could cause psychosis, death, seizures, and convulsions10.  

Withdrawing From Multiple Substances

There’s limited research on detoxing from multiple substances. But, the available research shows each drug needs its own attention during detox11. For example, detoxing from a stimulant and a depressant at the same time requires a more nuanced approach. So, physicians may prescribe 2 withdrawal medications to combat the effects of multiple substances. 

Withdrawing from multiple substances has its challenges, but it’s not uncommon. A study found 71% of patients in detox were withdrawing from 2 or more substances11. Your care provider will make the ultimate decision regarding any medications you’ll need during detox and how the process might look for you. 

Getting Treatment for Withdrawal Symptoms

At best, detoxing might feel uncomfortable. At worst, it could kill you. But for each end of the detoxing spectrum, you have treatment options. 

For many withdrawal symptoms, you may need the help and care of a detox center. Or, a residential rehab with a detox program. In a center like this, you can begin therapeutic residential treatment right after detoxing.
To see your options, you can browse our list of rehabs with detox that includes pricing, photos, insurance information, and more.

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