There are many barriers that can often keep people with substance use disorders from getting the help they need, such as limited availability of treatment options or insurance issues. However, some of these barriers are self-inflicted, including shame or embarrassment and fears about the sometimes extreme discomfort involved in the detox process.
Detox side effects and withdrawal symptoms can manifest in many different ways, both physical and psychological. Some are merely annoying while others can be potentially deadly without the supervision of an experienced medical detox professional. However unpleasant it may be though, going through withdrawal is a necessary first step to breaking free from addiction and dependence on drugs or alcohol.
When choosing medical detox, you can at least ensure that you will be a safe and controlled environment where a doctor can administer medication and other therapies to keep you stable and ease the symptoms of detox as much as possible.
Detoxing isn’t easy, and there are many withdrawal symptoms to contend with that will vary by substance and also the severity of a given individual’s addiction, but medical detox can at least help you avoid relapse as well as any unnecessary discomfort.
When someone engages in chronic abuse of drugs or alcohol, it causes fundamental changes to the chemistry of both the body and the brain, sometimes permanently. The longer someone abuses drugs or alcohol, the more accustomed their system becomes to the presence of these substances and the chemicals they produce, to the point where the brain will often stop making these chemical naturally.
Because of this, if someone tries to simply stop using drugs or alcohol, they experience what is known as withdrawal, when the body and brain attempt to regulate themselves and struggle to maintain function in the absence of the chemicals they had become reliant on.
As a person’s system tries to adjust itself back to the way it previously worked before someone started using drugs or alcohol, the body will manifest unpleasant and sometimes dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
While there are certain side effects of detox that are common across nearly all drugs and alcohol, including nausea, muscle pain, fatigue, and drug cravings, different drugs affect the brain in different ways, so there is some significant variation in withdrawal symptoms depending on the substance of abuse. Some are more mood-based than physical, some are milder and easier to deal with, and some are far more dangerous than others. The following are some of the most common detox side effects of each substance.
Opioids are currently among the most abused drugs in the country, whether it’s prescription opioids like Vicodin or OxyContin or illicit opioids like heroin. Opioids act on the brain’s opioid receptors, neurotransmitters designed to help the body manage pain. When the brain and body become dependent on opioids and stops making its own, which is when someone who has been abusing opioids stops using, their system “crashes” and the body struggles to cope without any opioids to block out pain and provide feelings of sedation.
Opioid withdrawal is not a life-threatening process, but this doesn’t mean that it’s easy. On the contrary, because of its extreme detox side effects, many opioid users will relapse within just a few days of having to deal with the detox side effects that present themselves during withdrawal. This is just another reason why someone should not attempt detox without at least some level of medical supervision.
In the case of severe addictions or dependence on more powerful opioids like heroin, the detox side effects can become even more intense, and include withdrawal symptoms such as:
Because it is available legally, alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances in the United States. Despite its commonality, alcohol detox can be an ordeal, and its detox side effects can be extremely dangerous without the aid of medical intervention.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are both psychological and physical as well as potentially life-threatening. Someone undergoing alcohol detox should never do so alone, as there is a high risk of not just relapse, but permanent damage and even death.
Benzodiazepines such as Valium or Xanax are similar to alcohol in that they are also central nervous system depressants, causing feelings of sedation and relaxation, which is why they are typically prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. Also like alcohol, benzodiazepines have extremely dangerous detox side effects, and a benzo detox should never be attempted without careful medical monitoring.
Apart from seizures and hallucinations, benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms also include what’s known as rebound anxiety and rebound insomnia, which are both much stronger versions of regular insomnia and anxiety symptoms.
Essentially, since the brain has stopped making GABA, the neurotransmitter that helps to regulate feelings of sedation, when benzo use is stopped, and the GABA levels plummet, symptoms of anxiety and insomnia come back substantially more powerful than they were before taking benzos. Rebound anxiety can cause severe panic attacks, while rebound insomnia can keep someone awake for days on end.
Finally, there is also a high likelihood that someone undergoing benzo detox will experience a detox side effect known as benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome. This is when the withdrawal symptoms of benzo detox become significantly stronger and unpredictable and can cause full-on psychosis, among other things. Benzodiazepine also greatly lengthens the entire detox process.
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The symptoms of detox associated with stimulants are a bit different than the other substances on this list in that their detox side effects are much more psychological than physical. This is due to the fact that stimulants main method of producing their euphoric effects is by flooding the brain with a neurotransmitter called dopamine
Dopamine is largely responsible for regulating what’s known as the “pleasure center” of the brain. As with other classes of drugs, when the brain becomes dependent on the dopamine produced by stimulants like cocaine or amphetamines, it stops making its own and, when someone stops abusing stimulants, and the dopamine supply runs out, their mood and energy plummets and they crash.
The lack of physical withdrawal symptoms does not make the experience of stimulant detox any less dangerous or unpleasant than the other previously mentioned substances. Between intense drug cravings and often extremely severe depression, odds of relapse and self-harm are both dangerously high.
As we’ve now pointed out, while drugs like heroin are responsible for scores of overdose deaths, the actual withdrawal process, while extremely uncomfortable, are not generally deadly. However, even if the detox side effects of certain substances themselves are not life-threatening, they can still place those experiencing them in dangerous situations if they are attempting to detox alone.
Relapsing due to the often overwhelming drug cravings or painful withdrawal symptoms can often lead to an accidental overdose in an attempt to find relief. Also, many symptoms that are manageable alone can, in combination, prove to be much more dangerous. For example, depression, confusion, and hallucinations create a high risk of someone harming themselves or even attempting suicide. Meanwhile, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea can easily cause dehydration so severe that it requires medical attention.
On the other side of the coin are the detox side effects of alcohol and benzodiazepine, which can be deadly if detox is not supervised by an experienced medical detox team. Among seizures, psychosis, and Delirium tremens, alcohol or benzo withdrawal can absolutely kill you without proper medical intervention at a professional medical detox facility.