Learn / How Long Do Drug Cravings Last?

How Long Do Drug Cravings Last?

Kayla Gill
 November 10th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Key Points

  • Cravings are a normal part of recovery and a major predictor for relapse.
  • Factors like substance use history and relapse rate influence cravings.
  • Cravings become less intense over time, making recovery possible.

Cravings are an intense urge to use a substance. They’re a normal part of early addiction recovery. Several factors influence how long drug cravings last. These include the type of substance, length of use, and relapse history. 

A cue-driven craving episode1 lasts anywhere between a few minutes to 30 minutes. They’re usually stronger and more frequent in the early stages of recovery, especially in the first 2 weeks after quitting a substance. Cravings become less intense over time.2 You may experience them sporadically for months or years after quitting a substance. But you can learn to manage cravings with proven coping techniques so they’re less intense.

What Causes Drug Cravings?

Complex interactions between your brain and a range of factors cause drug cravings. These factors include your environment, social setting—even your beliefs and values.

Drugs and alcohol influence the brain’s reward system.3 Specifically, substances alter your levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure, reward, and motivation. During addiction, your brain makes positive connections between substances and feelings of pleasure. Over time, your body needs more of a substance to feel the same effects. This is what builds tolerance and eventually leads to addiction. 

When you stop using a substance, your body and brain experience withdrawal. As this happens, your brain will try to restore balance. Cravings are a result of your brain adjusting its chemical levels.4 

Internal and external cues also come into play. Certain people, places, situations, and sensations that remind you of the substance can elicit a dopamine response. As your brain fires dopamine, it urges you to act. The result is intense cravings.    

Factors Influencing Drug Craving Duration

Type of Drug

Different substances affect the brain and body differently, influencing craving levels. 

Certain drugs, like opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and nicotine, have an intense and immediate effect on your brain’s reward system. This leads to stronger, more frequent cravings. They also cause more severe withdrawal symptoms, which can trigger cravings as a way to seek relief. 

For example, nicotine produces intense cravings. People experience a nicotine high within 10 seconds5 of inhaling. But the effect fades just as fast, driving people to smoke more. Withdrawal symptoms appear as early as a few hours after the last cigarette and can motivate cravings. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, just 6% of smokers are able to quit6 each year. Smoking cessation treatment programs show promise for managing nicotine cravings and quitting smoking.7

Other drugs, like marijuana, alcohol, and benzodiazepines, affect the brain more gradually and subtly. You can still develop tolerance to them, which amplifies cravings. 

Some drugs may produce longer-term cravings compared to others. For example, cocaine cravings peak several days after quitting8 and can last years. Meanwhile, nicotine cravings peak within 24 hours after you’ve quit smoking. They usually last a few weeks but can persist for months. 

Duration of Use

The duration of substance use impacts the timeline of cravings. In general, the longer you use a substance, the likelier you’ll be to experience cravings after you quit. Chronic substance use changes brain structure and function, especially in the brain’s reward circuit. You can become more sensitive to triggers and less responsive to natural dopamine rewards, like exercise. 

Long-term drug use damages areas of the brain responsible for decision-making, impulse control, and judgment. As a result, you might find it harder to manage negative emotions or cravings. 

Relapse History 

Relapse is commonly a part of recovery.9 Your history of relapse can influence the duration of drug and alcohol cravings. 

Experts are still researching the impact of relapse history on cravings. Some studies suggest that relapse increases cravings by reinforcing positive associations between drug use and reward. Others suggest that relapse can reduce the anticipation of a drug’s effects,10 thus decreasing the severity of cravings. 

While the debate is ongoing, there’s a clear relationship between cravings and relapse. Understanding this is an important part of relapse prevention. 

Do Drug Cravings Disappear Entirely?

Many people who struggle with addiction wonder, “How long do drug cravings last?” The answer isn’t so simple—cravings are unique to each individual. But through addiction treatment and a commitment to your long-term recovery, cravings eventually fade. 

Managing cravings is important to recovery, and it takes awareness, self-care, and support. Group therapy can be a good place to learn what craving management tools work for others. You may pick up some techniques to apply to your recovery too. Over time, as your brain recalibrates, your cravings will decrease.

Find Professional Help for Drug Cravings

Because cravings are a predictor of relapse,11 strategies for dealing with cravings are key to relapse prevention. These might include learning to recognize triggers, distraction techniques, substituting substance use with healthy behaviors, and most importantly, support. Support from family members and others in your sober community helps reduce isolation, provides emotional and informational guidance, and motivates you to stick with your recovery. 

Addiction treatment programs teach you how to manage cravings in a safe environment. They can also teach your loved ones how to better support you. Craving management is an important part of relapse prevention planning that can serve you well into long-term recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions About How Long Drug Cravings Last

How long do cravings last for drugs?

The duration of drug cravings varies depending on factors like the type of drug, length of use, and relapse history. Cravings are most intense in the early stages of recovery, up to 2 weeks after quitting. Some people experience cravings for months or years after quitting a substance. With effective addiction treatment, you can manage cravings so they’re less intense over time.

Why do some drugs produce stronger cravings than others?

The type of drug a person uses can influence the intensity and frequency of cravings. Drugs that have a strong and immediate effect on the brain’s reward system, such as opioids, cocaine, and methamphetamine, are more likely to produce intense cravings. These drugs also cause more severe withdrawal symptoms, which can trigger cravings as a form of relief.

What is the difference between cravings and withdrawal?

Cravings are an intense urge to use a substance. Meanwhile, withdrawal is a set of physical and psychological symptoms that occur when someone stops using a substance. Withdrawal symptoms are uncomfortable and sometimes even dangerous, but they’re often temporary. Cravings, on the other hand, can persist for a longer time, even after withdrawal symptoms have subsided.

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