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Drug withdrawal

Drug addiction, which may include addictions to cocaine/crack cocaine, heroin, MDMA/ecstasy, cannabis, or prescription drugs, causes a range of physical changes in your body which can make it difficult to control the frequency and amount of your drug consumption, and can also make it challenging to reduce or stop your drug use.

Drug withdrawal refers to the process that your body goes through when you try to stop taking drugs or are unable to consume drugs for whatever reason e.g. you have been unable to acquire the drug. Continued exposure to drugs causes your body to adapt to the presence of these substances in your system, and therefore, when you stop or significantly reduce your use of the drug, this can result in a range of unpleasant and sometimes dangerous drug withdrawal symptoms.

Whilst withdrawal is a temporary experience, it is important that you gain professional help & support during this time, so that your drug addiction withdrawal symptoms can be reduced in a safe and comfortable environment. At Priory, our expert drug addiction specialists are committed to supporting you throughout the drug withdrawal process, which takes place as part of our intensive medically assisted withdrawal drug detoxification programme, and we ensure that this process is safe, comprehensive, and managed as smoothly and comfortably as possible for each patient.

Drug withdrawal symptoms

The nature and severity of the drug withdrawal symptoms that you experience is influenced by a number of individual factors, including how long you have been struggling with a drug addiction, the type of drug that you have become addicted to, how much of the drug you have been consuming, the method by which you have been taking the drug, and your general mental and physical health.

Drug withdrawal symptoms can be categorised into both physical and psychological symptoms.

Physical symptoms of drug withdrawal include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • High temperature and/or chills
  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Restlessness
  • Vivid, unpleasant dreams
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • Excessive sweating
  • Shaking and shivering
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Psychological symptoms of drug withdrawal include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Insomnia
  • Panic attacks
  • Confusion
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating
  • Intense cravings for the drug
  • Short-term memory loss

The most severe drug addiction withdrawal symptoms, known as ‘delirium tremens’ (DTs), include:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Extreme confusion
  • Uncontrollable shaking/shivering
  • Visual and/or auditory hallucinations
  • Seizures

It is important to understand that each individual will experience the drug withdrawal process in a unique way. The type and severity of the drug withdrawal symptoms that you experience, and the risk that they pose to you depends on a number of different factors, including:

  • The length of time that you have been abusing the drug
  • The type of drug that you are addicted to
  • The method that you have been using to ingest the drug e.g. snorting, smoking, injecting, swallowing. Snorting, smoking and injecting drugs usually results in more acute withdrawal symptoms than taking drugs orally
  • The amount the drug that you take each time
  • Whether you have been taking multiple types of drugs
  • Your family history and genetic make-up
  • Your general levels of physical and mental health

The duration of the drug withdrawal process also depends upon the nature of your drug addiction and the extent of your previous drug misuse. The first symptoms can begin to occur within 24 hours of taking the drug and withdrawal symptoms tend to be at their worst for the first 48 hours. However, your withdrawal symptoms will gradually begin to improve as your body adapts to being without drug, and the entire withdrawal process can last for up to seven days.

This page was clinically reviewed by Dr Niall Campbell (MBBS, MRCPsych) in June 2020.

Drug withdrawal treatment at Priory
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