What Is Drug Withdrawal? And What Happens When You Attempt It?

Depends on the Drug and the Person Who’s Been Taking It

The Morning After
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Drug withdrawal is basically symptoms – the unpleasant way you feel during the time your body is ridding itself of the drug. Your experience of withdrawal can vary in a number of ways, including whether you abruptly stop using the drug (quit “cold turkey”) or reduce your intake over time.

The symptoms of withdrawal from drugs (and alcohol, also considered a drug) are a clear indication of addiction since they don’t occur unless you’ve developed a physical or mental dependence on a drug.

Additional factors that may affect your drug withdrawal experience include:

  • The type of drug you’ve been using
  • The length of time you’ve been using it
  • The date you last used it
  • The reason(s) you decided to stop using it
  • If you’ve tried drug withdrawal before, the symptoms you experienced then
  • Treatment(s) you receive for your withdrawal symptoms

Different Addictive Drugs Can Have Different Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol (Ethanol). If you’re withdrawing from drinking alcoholic beverages, it’s likely you’ve 1) abused alcohol daily for 3 months or longer, or 2) been binge drinking (drinking extremely heavily) for at least a week. Withdrawal symptoms will typically begin 6 to 12 hours after you stop or reduce your drinking and may last from 5 days to a week.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can vary according to their severity:

  • Mild withdrawal symptoms include “the shakes,” sleeplessness, anxiety, sweating, gastrointestinal (GI) distress, shortness of breath, and fast heart rate
  • Moderate withdrawal symptoms are mainly intensifications of mild symptoms.
  • Severe withdrawal symptoms include those listed above plus serious mental disturbances such as disorientation, extreme agitation, hallucinations (alcoholic hallucinosis), “rum fits” (withdrawal seizures), and delirium tremens ("the DTs"), the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal, which can include all the symptoms listed.

    You should also be aware that heavy drinking over time affects your entire body. Therefore, you may have symptoms of other medical problems that aren’t alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

    Sedatives and Hypnotics. Symptoms of withdrawal from addiction to these substances (which include benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and similar prescription medications) are about the same as for alcohol withdrawal.

    • With short-acting medications such as pentobarbital, symptoms start about 12 to 24 hours after the person’s last dose and “peak” within about 24 to 72 hours.
    • With long-acting medications such as phenobarbital, symptoms start about 24 to 48 hours after the person’s last dose and “peak” from the fifth to the eighth day.

    Opioids, or Opiates. Withdrawal from opioids (narcotic drugs, such as heroin and prescription pain medications including oxycodone) isn’t usually life threatening and doesn’t cause hallucinations, disorientation, or seizures. The symptoms, which include dilated pupils, may look like a severe case of the flu: runny nose, sneezing, teary eyes, body aches, and GI distress that may include nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea. People who inject these drugs are also at greater risk of infection.

    Withdrawal symptoms may last from 4 days to a week.

    Stimulant Drugs. Withdrawal (wash-out) from these drugs, which include cocaine and amphetamines, produces symptoms similar to those of severe depression, which, in addition to depression, may include general unhappiness (dysphoria), hunger, sleeping too much, and slowed thought, speech, and physical movement. Withdrawal symptoms may last 3 to 4 days.


    McKeown NJ. “Withdrawal syndromes clinical presentation.” EMedicine.Medscape.Com (2015).  

    “Common drug intoxication signs and withdrawal symptoms.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Institutes of Health (2006).  

    Lowinson JH (Ed.). “Substance abuse: a comprehensive textbook.” Lippincott Williams & Wilkins (2005).  

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