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Drug Withdrawal

(Abstinence Syndrome)
  • Definition

    Drug withdrawal is a reaction the body can have if a person suddenly stops using illegal drugs, prescription medications, or alcohol. This can occur if the person has been using drugs, medications, or alcohol regularly. Depending on the type and amount of the substance you were using, withdrawal can be a life-threatening condition.
  • Causes

    Drug withdrawal can be caused by illegal drugs, prescription medications, or alcohol.
  • Risk Factors

    Factors that increase your chances of drug withdrawal include:
    • Sudden stopping of illegal drugs, prescription medications, or alcohol
    • Substance abuse
    • Psychological dependence and addiction
  • Symptoms

    Withdrawal symptoms are different based on what you used. Symptoms may include:
    • Marijuana—loss of appetite, chills, weight loss, trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, irritability, feeling restless or nervous
    • Alcohol—shaking, hallucinations, seizures, confusion, anxiety, sweating, nausea
    • Barbiturates—weakness, tremors, hallucinations, lack of appetite, seizures
    • Opioids—abdominal pain or cramps, muscle aches, panic, tremors, sweating, nausea, diarrhea, fever, chills, irritability, goose pimples, runny nose, drug craving, inability to sleep, yawning
    • Benzodiazepines—abdominal pain or cramps, fast heartbeat, vomiting, tremors, seizures, anxiety
    • Cocaine—anxiety, feeling tired, depression
    • Amphetamines—depression, irritability, sleeping too much, muscle aches, abdominal pain
    Physical reaction anxiety
    Anxiety is a symptom of drug withdrawal from substances like cocaine and alcohol.
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  • Diagnosis

    You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done through blood and urine tests.
  • Treatment

    Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include one or more of the following:
    This is the first step in treating substance abuse. You will be closely checked for signs of withdrawal. You may be given medications to reduce cravings. Medications will also help to reduce withdrawal symptoms, which can be severe. Treatment is targeted to the specific symptoms and drugs used.
    You may need to enroll in a rehabilitation program. This treatment uses behavioral therapy to prevent you from using drugs in the future. Behavioral therapy may include the following:
    • Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches you how to recognize and avoid situations that may lead to drug abuse.
    • Family therapy helps you and your family look at patterns of drug abuse. Strategies are suggested to avoid future abuse.
    • Motivational therapy uses positive reinforcement to prevent drug use.
    Residential Treatment (Therapeutic Communities)
    Residential treatment is sometimes needed. The typical stay is 6-12 months. These facilities will help you learn how to live a drug-free life.
    Support Groups
    Support groups offer continued support for a drug- or alcohol-free life. Some support groups are Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, and Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • Prevention

    To help reduce your chances of developing drug withdrawal, take the following steps:
    • Attend regular support group meetings.
    • Avoid people and situations where drugs are available.
    • Inform all healthcare providers of your history with drugs.

    National Institute on Drug Abuse

    Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration


    Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

    Narcotics Anonymous


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    Opioid withdrawal. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated May 20, 2014. Accessed May 28, 2015.

    Principles of drug addiction treatment: a research based guide. National Institute of Drug Abuse website. Available at: Updated December 2012. Accessed May 28, 2015.

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