When tackling alcohol or drug addiction, resilience is a key factor in determining whether or not someone will successfully overcome their struggle. But uncomfortable and potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms make this very difficult leading to relapses in many cases. This prompts many to wonder, ‘how long does withdrawal last?’ The answer isn’t simple and requires you to consider numerous factors. To answer your question, let’s look at different withdrawal symptoms, treatment options, and factors that prolong withdrawal.
What is Physical Dependence?
This is referred to as the need to take a substance in order to avoid experiencing withdrawal effects. Also referred to as chemical dependency, it can lead to tolerance: when you have to take more of a substance to get the same effect.
Tolerance develops due to the body’s need to maintain homeostasis, which helps preserve a stable level of functioning. Repeated use of a substance changes the connections in the brain, which allow it to adapt to the effects of a drug in order to maintain homeostasis.
When your brain adapts to the current level of a substance, you can no longer feel the same depressive or euphoric effect. That’s because deviating from normal homeostasis is what helps you feel the substance’s desired effects in the first place.
What are Withdrawal Symptoms?
Withdrawal refers to the different mental and physical symptoms that you experience when you suddenly stop using an addictive substance. It mostly affects people who develop a tolerance to addictive substances, such as alcohol, drugs, and nicotine. The severity of withdrawal symptoms can also depend on how you’re cutting back on the substance. This can include acute withdrawal and protracted withdrawal.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
If you regularly consume large amounts of alcohol for weeks and months, you might experience mental and physical symptoms when you start cutting back on how much you drink. These can range from mild to serious, and it happens because your body can’t function without alcohol.
Mild symptoms include headaches, nausea, insomnia, and sweating. These usually start 6 hours after your last drink.
Moderate symptoms of withdrawal are more serious and can include hallucinations and seizures. These start within 48 hours of your last drink.
Only around 5 percent of people experiencing alcohol withdrawal develop severe symptoms, also known as delirium tremens. These include high blood pressure, confusion, fever, and heavy sweating. In addition, you’re also at risk of facing vivid hallucinations and delusions.
Drug Withdrawal Symptoms
Drug Withdrawal symptoms are similar across the spectrum of different addictions. That being said, some opioid withdrawal symptoms, are different. Early symptoms include muscle aches, agitation, and a runny nose. In the case of opioids, people experience withdrawal symptoms as soon as the effect of the last dosage starts wearing off. So that means any time you stop long-term use.
Late withdrawal symptoms can include diarrhea, nausea, abdominal cramping, and goosebumps. Such symptoms can be quite uncomfortable but not life-threatening. They usually begin 12 hours after the last time you consume heroin. In the case of methadone exposure, it takes about 30 hours.
Severe Withdrawal Symptoms
Without proper management of symptoms, withdrawal from substances like alcohol and benzodiazepines can prove fatal. This is due to delirium tremens, which can lead to severe seizures. While it’s rare and only affects about 5 percent of people experiencing alcohol withdrawal, it’s fatal in about 15 percent of people who don’t seek appropriate treatment.
Opioid withdrawal symptoms are rarely life-threatening, but they can be quite uncomfortable. Although there are no lethal symptoms of withdrawing from opioid use, there’s a major risk of returning to opioid use. This is especially the case when you’re detoxing without proper medical assistance. And if this happens after a longer duration of abstaining from opioids, you can be at a higher risk of overdosing.
How Long It Lasts
Research on the withdrawal experiences of different people undergoing addiction treatment shows varying results. Generally, you can expect it to last for about five days, but the severity and length will depend on how long you’ve been using a certain drug and the kind of drug you’ve been using.
- Benzodiazepine withdrawal: Symptoms can start within 4 days of the last use, and reach a peak in the first two weeks.
- According to AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS research paper alcohol withdrawal timeline: Symptoms appear within 4 hours of the last drink, and reach a peak within 2 days.
- Heroin and painkillers (short-acting opioids): Symptoms start within a day of the last dosage, and can last a week to 10 days.
- Methadone (long-acting opioids): Symptoms start within 4 days of the last dosage, and last about 10 days.
Stronger addictive substances, like opioids and alcohol, will require a few weeks of clinically supervised detox. During this period, it’s likely that you’ll continue experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
However, the above-mentioned timeline only applies to acute withdrawal symptoms. Even after you stop experiencing these symptoms, it doesn’t mean that withdrawal is over.
While physical symptoms only last a few weeks, you’ll often see that rehabilitative programs stretch as long as a month to 45 days. This is so that people are under rehabilitative counseling to prevent a relapse. Now, you’re probably wondering why someone would relapse when they no longer feel any physical symptoms.
Protracted withdrawal, also known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome, can continue even after acute symptoms cease. These can include emotional symptoms and cravings, which are common in people recovering from opioid, benzodiazepine, and alcohol addiction treatment.
In the case of alcohol abuse, these symptoms can last for months or even years, often including:
- problems concentrating
- unstable mood
- poor sleep
- depressive thoughts
- low sex drive
In the case of opioid withdrawal, the following symptoms may last for weeks or months.
- poor problem-solving skills
- heightened anxiety
- problems concentrating
- emotional numbness
- poor quality of sleep
- low energy levels
In protracted benzodiazepine withdrawal, you can expect symptoms to fluctuate and last a few months. These include:
- panic attacks
- heightened anxiety
- intrusive thoughts
- compulsive behaviors
People recovering from an addiction to stimulants like cocaine or methamphetamine can experience the following protracted symptoms for over a month.
- poor attention
- inability to manage emotions
- low energy
- mood instability
- poor problem-solving skills
- low impulse control
Such symptoms can have a negative effect on a person’s quality of life. And since they last for a long time, it can cause them to think that only their desired substance can offer some relief. It’s why experts recommend further addiction treatment that goes beyond addressing physical dependence.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends continued counseling and support groups to help people cope with these symptoms and remain committed to avoiding substance abuse.
How You Can Manage Withdrawal Symptoms
Undergoing proper alcohol withdrawal treatment is the best way to tackle symptoms. This also applies to opioid, stimulant, and benzodiazepine addiction.
Undergo Detoxification Process
The first step involves tackling physical symptoms, for which detox is necessary. In a detox program, medical specialists will reduce your exposure to a specific substance while preventing physical symptoms using medication. Since you’ll be under medical supervision throughout the ten-day process, you’ll be provided emergency care in the event of dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
See a Counselor
For many people struggling with addiction, it’s common to relapse due to emotional stress and having no one to talk to. Talking can be very therapeutic and is an effective way to externalize your feelings and thoughts without bottling everything up. A professional counselor can help you develop healthy coping mechanisms to use in times of distress. Similarly, behavioral therapies are useful for transforming negative thinking patterns to change behaviors, allowing you to break free from self-destructive patterns.
Join a Support Group
Once you stop experiencing physical symptoms, emotional symptoms and cravings will start to kick in. To tackle these, mental health specialists recommend speaking to others about your struggles to get emotional support. People with similar experiences can offer encouragement and useful advice on how you can tackle different challenges. When you surround yourself with people who have similar goals and are committed to leading lives free of substance use, you’re less likely to relapse.
Exercise can offer numerous benefits to help your body recover from addiction. Working out on a regular basis can improve your brain chemistry by helping the brain release endorphins. It also alleviates stress, which is a major reason that people relapse despite undergoing addiction treatment. A common withdrawal symptom is insomnia and poor quality sleep; exercise can help you sleep better and feel well-rested. Research indicates that exercise can reduce the risk of relapse and prevent compulsive substance abuse.
Work on Nutrition and Hydration
What you eat can have a major impact on helping the body and mind recover from addiction. Chronic substance use disorder can lead to deficiencies because of how it affects the appetite. According to a study, people undergoing addiction treatment are usually deficient in vitamins A, C, or D. Proper nutrition can also curb cravings and prevent you from feeling irritable, anxious, or depressed, which often causes a person to relapse. Similarly, you may be confused between thirst and cravings, which makes it important to stay hydrated.
Get Proper Sleep
Many cases of relapse occur due to the person’s inability to think clearly and control their mood swings. Getting proper sleep every night can improve focus, which reduces the risk of relapsing due to feelings of frustration or irritability.
Why It Takes So Long to Recover
A common question among people whose loved ones struggle with addiction is why it can take so long to recover. Substances like alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opioids can have a lasting effect on the brain. When a substance alters the natural brain chemistry, it must return to its pre-addiction state for withdrawal symptoms to stop.
In the case of opioid addiction, substance abuse of illicit drugs or painkiller medication can cause the body to stop producing endorphins, which act as natural painkillers. This happens because the nerve cells mistake opioids for endorphins. And when you start exposing them to excess amounts of imitative endorphins, the body stops producing endorphins naturally. Consequently, the body starts to become dependent on opioids to function.
And once a person discontinues their use of opioids, they start experiencing withdrawal symptoms. There’s no fixed amount of time that withdrawal symptoms will remain since your body has to start producing endorphins naturally for symptoms to stop. Similarly, you can’t expect the body to recover and start producing endorphins naturally after a specific amount of time That depends on the type of drug and how long you’ve been taking it.
Repeated alcohol consumption means that a person will require a higher concentration of alcohol, or more drinks, to feel intoxicated. This shows that they’ve developed a tolerance to the substance. Because of this, the liver starts metabolizing alcohol faster, which leads to a low concentration of alcohol in the body. Because of this, you start drinking more of it to have the same effect.
Since alcohol acts as a central nervous system depressant, the brain gets used to a high alcohol concentration at all times. As a result, the body works twice as hard to keep the brain more alert. When alcohol concentrations in the body drop, your brain is still in a more active state, except that there’s no alcohol to balance it out. This leads to an uncomfortable withdrawal process. For physical symptoms to stop, the brain must adjust to there being no alcohol, and the body must stop doubling its efforts to keep the brain active.
Alcohol and Drug Withdrawal FAQs
Here are some of the most common questions that people have about drug and alcohol addiction, withdrawal, and treatment.
How long does withdrawal last?
This will depend on the substance and the length of time that you took it. Generally, withdrawal timelines for drugs are as follows:
- Benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms peak in the first two weeks.
- Alcohol withdrawal reaches a peak within 2 days.
- Heroin and painkiller withdrawal can last between a week and 10 days.
- Methadone withdrawal can last about 10 days.
But this is only a timeline of symptoms, and protracted withdrawal, which can include emotional symptoms, can last for months.
How long will I get addiction treatment?
Detox programs can last between 3 to 10 days, after which you’ll have to take rehabilitative counseling at a treatment center. Generally, the process takes about a month to 45 days.
Does the body recover from drug abuse?
Yes, addiction is treatable, but the lasting effects they have on the central nervous system and other organs take months to return to normal. However, in the case of chronic alcohol abuse, cirrhosis is permanent, and the liver can’t recover.
Can I detox at home?
This will depend on the substance and how long you’ve used it. Since alcohol withdrawal is more likely to cause delirium tremens, unassisted detox can be dangerous. Even in the case of other drugs, some symptoms are best managed with guidance from a medical professional. It’s best to consult an addiction expert to safely detox the body.
Does drug withdrawal lead to seizures?
Yes, withdrawal from substances like opioids and alcohol can lead to seizures. This is only a symptom of severe withdrawal and affects about 5 percent of people with addiction.
How soon do you become addicted to a drug?
No fixed number of uses can be pointed out as a cause of addiction. Rather, it can depend on how frequently you use it in a short amount of time. Some drugs, like methadone, are highly addictive and cause addiction after a single use. Opioid dependence can take place after 5 days. Alcohol addiction can develop after heavy alcohol use on a regular basis.