Detoxification can be an unpleasant experience. Your body has gotten used to a chemical, and your brain chemistry has adapted around it. To achieve sobriety, your brain and body will have to reset. In fact, detox can be a misleading term. The process can last longer than it takes the drug to leave your system. In this case, the problem is not toxins in your body but the lack of chemical balance that causes uncomfortable feelings.
Your brain is resilient and adaptable, but it takes time to return to balance after you’ve gotten used to a steady supply of a psychoactive drug. Your experience in detox may depend on several variables. But some people can experience life-threatening symptoms during withdrawal. Can drug detox be fatal? How likely are you to encounter dangerous symptoms during withdrawal? Learn more about detox and withdrawal symptoms.
Is Detox Worth the Risk?
If detox is potentially dangerous, is it even worth the risk? The risks you face in detox can be significantly lowered with medical treatment and guidance. You may still experience discomfort, but your risk of serious medical complications can be minimal with medical treatment.
On the other hand, addiction is an inherently dangerous disease. While it may feel like you’re in control in the early stages of addiction, it can take over your life quickly. Before you long, you may find yourself managing your day around finding, buying, and taking drugs in order to stave off negative emotions of uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.
As your substance use problem gets worse, you may need to use higher doses more often for the drug to maintain its effects.
Some substances, like alcohol, take their toll over time. While alcoholism can cause relationship strain, job loss, and other socioeconomic problems, it can also degrade your health over time. Long-term alcoholism can lead to various types of cancer, liver disease, and other severe medical problems. Illicit drugs can have similar long-term effects, but they may also kill you more quickly.
Illicit drug use is unpredictable. You may think you’re buying cocaine or heroin when you’ve actually bought a mix of substances. In the past few years, the potent synthetic drug fentanyl has been found in street heroin and cocaine.
Fentanyl is powerful enough to lead to a fatal overdose in amounts as small as 2 mg (milligrams). Illicit drug use is also associated with higher risks of contracting infectious diseases, especially if you inject drugs intravenously.
With those risks in mind, each dose can be potentially life-threatening. If you have a substance use disorder, it’s important to address it as soon as possible. With treatment, the risks of withdrawal pale in comparison to the risks of active addiction.
What Can Make Withdrawal Dangerous?
Withdrawal can range from mild discomfort to severe, life-threatening symptoms. Much of your experience with withdrawal will depend on the type of drug you become dependent on. For instance, marijuana may cause mild anxiety, sleep problems, and general discomfort if you stop taking it after long-term heavy use.
On the other hand, the long-term heavy use of alcohol can cause much more severe symptoms if you quit abruptly. Quitting suddenly is another factor in the intensity of your withdrawal symptoms. Quitting cold turkey can create more severe withdrawal symptoms than tapering off slowly over time. In some cases, quitting cold turkey is the best option to achieve sobriety, but you may need to speak to a medical professional first to make sure it’s safe.
The time you’ve spent dependent on a drug can also increase the intensity of your withdrawal. Someone that has just started to develop alcohol dependence after a few weeks of binging may not experience the same withdrawal symptoms as someone that has been dependent on alcohol for years.
Central nervous system stimulants include drugs like amphetamines and cocaine. They work to increase excitability in the nervous system, giving you feelings of wakefulness, alertness, euphoria, and increased focus. When they’re abused, they may give you a euphoric sense of empowerment and excitement. However, if you misuse a stimulant like cocaine to the point of becoming chemically dependent on the drug, you might start to experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.
Stimulant dependence causes your body to adapt to the excitatory chemical by balancing brain chemistry around it. Your brain may produce less of its own stimulating effects. When you stop using, you may experience symptoms like fatigue as your brain recovers from a sudden lack of stimulation.
Besides fatigue, you may also feel restlessness, agitation, depression, general discomfort, lethargy, sleep disturbances, and nightmares. After the long-term heavy use of a powerful stimulant like cocaine or meth, you may experience more intense withdrawal symptoms. In some cases, this can be hypersomnia and deep depression. While stimulant use isn’t associated with life-threatening physical withdrawal symptoms, the psychological symptoms may be dangerous.
Stimulants increase rewarding feelings by interacting with natural chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. Powerful stimulants like meth can increase the release of dopamine and block the reuptake process that would remove the chemical from your system. This can flood your dopamine receptors to the point where they are damaged. Damaged receptors may be less effective, making it difficult for you to experience pleasure unless you take the drug. This serves to deepen your dependence on it.
For these reasons, long-term misuse of powerful stimulants can lead to a condition called anhedonia, which is the inability to feel pleasure. It often leads to depression when you stop using the drug. Stimulant withdrawal may cause suicidal thoughts or actions. In many cases, the most dangerous aspect of stimulant detox is mental health. However, these feelings are often temporary as your brain readjusts. Some psychological symptoms can linger, but addressing them in therapy or addiction treatment can help.
Opioids like heroin are one of the most common illicit sources of chemical dependence and addiction. Prescription opioid misuse can lead to dependence and the eventual use of illicit heroin. Heroin and synthetic opioids have been linked to many overdose deaths during the past few years.
In 2019, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported that 49,860 deaths involved opioids, including prescriptions, heroin, and synthetic drugs like fentanyl. Opioids can be powerfully addictive, and long-term use can lead to chemical dependence.
Heroin, and other opioids, are known for their extremely unpleasant withdrawal process. Opioids bind to receptors all over the body, suppressing pain. When you stop using, you’ll experience discomfort all over your body. People who go through it often compare it to a bad case of the flu. It can cause sweating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, body aches, excessive yawning, anxiety, and a runny nose. Along with this discomfort, you may experience powerful compulsions to use heroin again.
Opioid withdrawal can be incredibly difficult to get through without relapsing, and it often requires help from professionals. However, opioid withdrawal isn’t known to be life-threatening. Still, a 2016 paper pointed out a clear danger of opioid withdrawal. Just like when you have the flu, opioids can cause you to lose water quickly. Sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea are common symptoms that can lead to dehydration.
Under normal circumstances, dehydration would be solved by access to plenty of water. However, if you can’t keep anything down, dehydration could become life-threatening. If you can’t drink water without vomiting, it’s important to seek medical care. In many fatal cases of opioid withdrawal-induced dehydration, the person going through withdrawal was incarcerated under the care of neglectful guards and didn’t have free access to water.
Depressants may present the clearest danger when it comes to withdrawal and detox. Central nervous system depressants include substances like alcohol, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates. They work to slow down the nervous system, facilitating sleep and relaxation. When they’re used in heavy doses, often for recreational purposes, they can cause sedation, drowsiness, euphoria, impaired judgment, and impaired motor skills.
Long-term depressant misuse can cause you to become chemically dependent. Alcohol can cause tolerance, dependence, and addiction after a period of frequent binge drinking.
When you stop using abruptly, your nervous system may become overactive, causing unpleasant and even dangerous symptoms. Depressant withdrawal is likely to cause insomnia, anxiety, restlessness, headache, and irritability. In more severe cases, it can cause tremors, shaky hands, nausea, vomiting, heart palpitations, chest pains, increased blood pressure, and seizures.
In some cases, alcohol withdrawal can cause a condition called delirium tremens, which is characterized by the sudden onset of extreme confusion, panic, seizures, heart palpitations, and chest pains. In severe cases, delirium tremens can cause heart attacks or strokes.
What’s Involved in the Detox Process?
Medical detoxification is the highest level of care in addiction treatment, and it involves 24-hour medical care. The approach to detox depends on your individual needs. In some cases, you may be given medication to help taper you off a drug. In others, doctors will monitor your conditions and treat symptoms to stop or avoid complications.
Detox may also involve clinical care in the form of therapy sessions to treat the psychological and social components of addiction. Detox typically lasts for five to 10 days before you move on to the next level of care that’s appropriate for your needs. The primary goal of detox is medical safety, and your risk of experiencing serious medical issues is significantly diminished with medical care.