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What is Withdrawal? When Does It Occur?



Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

Withdrawal is the physical and mental process that someone with a substance abuse disorder goes through when they stop drinking or taking drugs. For some, these symptoms occur even if they merely cut back on their substance use. What an individual experiences during withdrawal can vary, and the severity of their symptoms will depend on the addictive substance, their own body’s response, and even how long they have been abusing the substance. In some cases, withdrawal can be dangerous, which is why it is important to always speak to a doctor before discontinuing drugs or alcohol.

Common Symptoms of Withdrawal

The exact symptoms experienced during withdrawal will depend on the addictive substance. However, there are some common symptoms that most people experience during withdrawal. These include:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in mood
  • Congestion
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Muscle pain
  • Nausea
  • Restlessness
  • Runny nose
  • Shakiness
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Vomiting

More serious, life-threatening symptoms are possible, such as hallucinations, seizures, and delirium. These physical reactions can last for several days or even a week, but the mental symptoms — like depression or anxiety — may linger for much longer.

What Causes Withdrawal

Both drugs and alcohol will alter a person’s brain over time. In fact, as substance use continues, the brain adapts. For instance, alcohol will actually slow how the brain functions, resulting in a change in the way that nerves communicate with each other.

For individuals who are addicted to alcohol, withdrawal symptoms can start as early as six hours after they stop drinking heavily. Alcoholics will likely experience progressively worse symptoms for the next two to three days. After that, symptoms should begin to gradually improve. Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous without medical supervision. Severe and life-threatening symptoms such as seizures and delirium tremens (where regulating body temperature and blood pressure become difficult) are possible.

Different addictive drugs have different withdrawal timelines. For example, benzodiazepines are prescription drugs used to manage anxiety, panic disorder, and certain seizure disorders. Depending on the type of benzodiazepine, withdrawal can start just hours after the medication is stopped. It is possible for someone to have lingering symptoms for several months.

Withdrawal from marijuana is also possible, especially with long-term, heavy use. Someone may experience withdrawal symptoms for as long as one to two weeks.

In all cases, it’s important to undergo withdrawal in a medically supervised detoxification program.

Inpatient vs Outpatient Detox

Detoxification, or detox, is the first step for individuals who want to overcome a dependence on drugs or alcohol. Detox is the process of safely removing the addictive substance from the body. There are several options for detox, including both inpatient and outpatient programs.

Inpatient detox provides 24-hour care from medical professionals to help individuals manage their withdrawal symptoms. Outpatient detox will provide some treatment, but most of the experience will happen in the person’s home. Typically, inpatient is best suited to individuals who are getting sober for the first time. Outpatient options may be most useful for individuals with only mild or moderate addictions who have support at home and no other underlying mental health concerns.

When choosing a program, you should ask:

  • Is this program covered by my insurance?
  • How are program staff members trained? Are they licensed?
  • Can I see a sample treatment plan?
  • Do you offer counseling and medical services?
  • How do you help prevent a relapse?
  • Can you make a referral to an addiction treatment program?

Picking the right program requires an honest evaluation of the person’s needs, as well as determining what the individual can afford, which programs are licensed, offer trained staff, and the facility’s success rate.

Drug and Alcohol Withdrawal Treatments

Successfully navigating withdrawal symptoms requires support, care, and, in some cases, medication. The first step is to create a detoxification plan with a doctor or addiction treatment professional. These experts can ensure you’re enrolled in a program that can help.

There are medications available that can assist with some withdrawal symptoms, depending on the addictive substance. It is important to remember that medications only help individuals manage withdrawal symptoms. They will not help to treat the actual dependence or addiction of any substances.

It’s important to remember that detox is just the first step in an individual’s recovery journey. While detox can help remove the addictive substances from a person’s body, it does not address the mental and behavioral components of addiction. When enrolling in a detox program, it’s important for individuals to have a next step planned for their recovery.

Into Action Recovery provides evidence-based, 12-step-based recovery for addiction and substance use disorders. Conveniently located in Houston, Texas, our team focuses on helping clients detox and recover physically, mentally, and spiritually from addiction challenges. If you or a loved one are considering getting sober, find out how we can help you today.

This is not medical advice. Always speak to a health care professional when deciding about your treatment.


Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

Dr. Saeed is a psychiatry specialist with over 40 years of experience in the medical field. He received training in General Psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he was selected as the Medical Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. He currently serves as the medical director at Into Action Recovery Centers. Full Bio

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