When Can a Withdrawal Kill?

When Can a Withdrawal Kill?

Any drug use can be dangerous, even deadly. Chronic abuse can cause a depletion of health, organ damage, depression, cognitive impairment and death. You most likely are familiar with these potential risks; however, what you may not know is that a drug withdrawal can be deadly too.

From Addiction to Withdrawal

Upon the continuation of drug use, which includes alcohol, the body becomes familiar with the substance. The brain has adjusted to the frequency of the drug and will trigger a variety of chemical reactions which cause you to have cravings whenever you are not high. These can be incredibly powerful and difficult to ignore. As soon as the drugs are out of your body, you will feel the effects of a withdrawal. Using again solves this problem until the drugs wear off and the cycle continues.

Eventually, you may want to quit the cycle of addiction. This is a great first step and will help you to regain sobriety and a healthy life. However, quitting is not going to be easy. As soon as you stop giving your body the drug of choice, withdrawal symptoms will set it. These vary from person to person and range from muscle aches and cold sweats to fever, seizures and heart palpitations. Sure, you might think you can do this on your own, but it’s not advisable because a withdrawal can kill. Depending on the substance being abused, the body can go through such an extreme shock that it can put you into a dangerous physical and/or mental state. It is this core reason to implore the assistance of a detox and rehab facility rather than going at it alone, or cold turkey.

Factors to Consider for the Intensity of a Drug Withdrawal

Although every person with an addiction will go through a withdrawal, the actual effects can be more or less intense depending on what drug(s) have been used, how long you have been using, the amount you used, the frequency of use and any underlying mental health issues you may have. Additional factors to consider when it comes to a drug withdrawal is whether or not you have had an addiction in the past, genetic makeup and age.

The Length of a Drug Withdrawal

A withdrawal will start as soon as your body starts to crave more of the drug. Most of the symptoms last for the duration of the detox which can be between 48 hours and one week. However, certain withdrawals can last for weeks, months or even years. This is particularly common in various prescription medications like barbiturates.

It is during this initial withdrawal which the risks of serious health consequences can occur. After this phase, these dangers significantly decrease. That said any mental health issues could still provoke a variety of risks including self harm and violence.  These can linger for long periods of time if they are not addressed and treated.

Whenever you or someone you care about is attempting to quit drug abuse, it’s pertinent to understand the withdrawals that can be deadly. If any of these are your drug of choice, a detoxification and rehab programme should be sought.


Alcohol is one of those drugs which so many people believe to be safer than illicit drugs. It’s common for severe alcoholics to attempt to quit by themselves yet end up in the ER because of the serious withdrawal symptoms that can occur. Amy Winehouse is just one example of a well known individual to die from alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Whenever large, frequent amounts of alcohol are consumed for extended periods of time, a withdrawal can induce seizures, hallucinations, heart palpitations, confusion, stroke and death.

Benzodiazepine and Tranquilizers

This class of drugs includes common prescription medications like Xanax (alprazolam), Ativan (lorazepam) and Valium (diazepam). Although generally accepted as legal medications for anxiety, insomnia or stress, they are very easy to develop a tolerance and addiction to. The withdrawal can last for several months, but the most dangerous symptoms often occur within the first 2 weeks. Addiction detox centers may slowly reduce the drug and, when the time is right, move the individual from a slow acting to long acting variation. Eventually, if applicable, the person will be taken off the type of drug all together. However, this is not always able to be done and will be on a case by case basis.  Benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome can induce delirium, insomnia, fever, confusion, short term memory loss, suicidal and homicidal thoughts and cardiac arrest.


Opiates including prescription painkillers, heroin and methadone are related substances which alter chemicals in the brain leading to, what many addicts say, “the worst withdrawal cravings”. In fact, the psychological withdrawal can last for months, even years. It is these symptoms which can make opiate addiction recovery so challenging. Although painkillers and heroin may not necessarily induce a potentially fatal withdrawal, the psychological feelings which are provoked can include suicidal thoughts. When combined with restlessness, insomnia, muscle pains or any underlying mental health issue, these risks increase. Moreover, when methadone is the substance of abuse, or used to replace a heroin addiction, it can be fatal when consumed in large amounts for a long period of time. An opiate treatment center will be able to monitor all of these symptoms and ensure the detoxification is carried out in the safest manner possible.

Other Risks of Drug Withdrawals

Relapse is another significant risk of a drug withdrawal. During the initial phase, tolerance to any drug will lower; however, cravings remain the same. What this means is that if a person attempts to quit on their own and relapse using the same amount as they used prior to quitting, they can overdose rapidly. In the case of opiates, this is very prevalent and one of the leading concerns amongst addiction experts and doctors.

Withdrawing from More than One Drug

The risks of a deadly withdrawal can also increase when a person is addicted to more than one drug. In this case, the symptoms of withdrawal can be exacerbated and lead to dangerous complications and side effects.

Unfortunately, there are numerous instances in which a person attempted to quit drug abuse on their own and ended up dying. The cause of death is assumed to be from the drug itself, rather than a self attempt at quitting. This can be prevented through the guidance and support of a detoxification and rehab program.

Even if you do not have an addiction to any of the aforementioned drugs, a withdrawal can still be dangerous. Low body temperature, fever, trembling, irregular heartbeat, dehydration and vomiting are all very common withdrawal symptoms from any drug. These do pose a risk and could lead to serious consequences if they are not medically supervised.