Mental Health

Can You Die From Drug Withdrawal?

Drug withdrawal  refers to manifestation of abnormal physical or psychological features that follow the abrupt discontinuation of a drug that has the capability of producing physical dependence. If you have been using a substance with a high potential for dependency and you stop suddenly or abruptly or you cut down your use drastically, you can experience a variety of withdrawal symptoms. The intensity and duration of these withdrawal symptoms can vary widely, depending on the type of drug and your biological make-up.

Withdrawal can be unpleasant and potentially dangerous in some cases. For this reason, you should always talk to your doctor before stopping or reducing your use of a substance.

What Happens to Your Body During Drug Withdrawal?

As you become physically dependent on drugs, your body gradually adapts to the presence of drugs in your system. But when you abruptly stop using drugs after long-term use, your body can become violently ill and produce a range of withdrawal symptoms as it tries to adapt to the sudden absence of drugs.

For instance, opioids like heroin and painkillers act on a brain neurotransmitter called dopamine that creates feelings of extreme happiness and euphoria. After long-term use of opioids, the brain stops producing dopamine on its own and comes to rely on opioids for these effects. When people abruptly stop using opioids after becoming addicted, their brains produce lower dopamine levels leading to symptoms like anxiety and depression.

What are the signs and symptoms of drug withdrawal?

The nature and severity of the drug withdrawal symptoms that you experience is influenced by a number of individual factors, including how long you have been struggling with a drug addiction, the type of drug that you have become addicted to, how much of the drug you have been consuming, the method by which you have been taking the drug, and your general mental and physical health.

Drug withdrawal symptoms can be categorized into both physical and psychological symptoms.

Physical symptoms of drug withdrawal include:

•          Nausea and vomiting

•          Diarrhoea

•          Muscle and bone pain

•          High temperature and/or chills

•          Fatigue and exhaustion

•          Restlessness

•          Vivid, unpleasant dreams

•          Flu-like symptoms

•          Headaches

•          Heart palpitations

•          Excessive sweating

•          Shaking and shivering

Psychological symptoms of drug withdrawal include:

•          Depression

•          Anxiety

•          Paranoia

•          Insomnia

•          Panic attacks

•          Confusion

•          Irritability and agitation

•          Difficulty focusing or concentrating

•          Intense cravings for the drug

•          Short-term memory loss

The most severe drug addiction withdrawal symptoms, known as ‘delirium tremens’ (DTs), include:

•          Rapid heart rate

•          Elevated body temperature

•          Extreme confusion

•          Uncontrollable shaking/shivering

•          Visual and/or auditory hallucinations

•          Seizures

Can You Die From Drug Withdrawal?

Yes, unassisted withdrawal from some substances, such as alcohol and benzodiazepines, can cause death but with professional treatment through medical detox and other supporting therapies, the risks of withdrawal can be controlled to keep individuals safe and largely comfortable through the detox process.

Withdrawal symptoms can vary from one individual to another and depends on many other factors. The route of administration, whether intravenous, intramuscular, oral or otherwise, can also play a role in determining the severity of withdrawal symptoms. There are different stages of withdrawal as well; generally, a person will start to feel bad (crash or come down), progress to feeling worse, hit a plateau, and then the symptoms begin to dissipate. However, withdrawal from certain drugs (barbiturates, benzodiazepines, alcohol, glucocorticoids) can be fatal.

How could someone die during opiate withdrawal?

The answer lies in the final two clinical signs; vomiting and diarrhea. Persistent vomiting and diarrhea may result, if untreated, in dehydration, hypernatremia (elevated blood sodium level) and resultant heart failure. People can, and do die from drug withdrawal and all such deaths are preventable, given appropriate medical management. Clinical management programs are put in place where withdrawal is likely in order to avert these avoidable deaths.


Dr. Oche Otorkpa PG Cert, MPH, PhD

Dr. Oche is a seasoned Public Health specialist who holds a post graduate certificate in Pharmacology and Therapeutics, an MPH, and a PhD both from Texila American University. He is a member of the International Society of Substance Use Professionals and a Fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK. He authored two books: "The Unseen Terrorist," published by AuthorHouse UK, and "The Night Before I Killed Addiction."
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