Why Quitting Drugs Alone Can Be Dangerous: Benefits of Detox

Photo of Samantha Bothwell, MA Samantha Bothwell, MA Info icon
Calendar icon Last Updated: 02/9/2022

Reading Time: 6 minutes

It takes a lot of courage to stop using drugs and alcohol. It can feel vulnerable and hard to admit to yourself or others that you want to change. And while it can be tempting to try quitting alcohol and drugs by yourself, quitting drugs alone can actually be dangerous. Professional support through a detox or rehab program can keep you safe and provide you with vital coping and relapse prevention skills.1

Dangers of Quitting Drugs Alone

Chronic drug and alcohol use can lead to physiological dependence, which means that your brain and body rely on the substance to function normally. If you are dependent on a substance and quit cold turkey, you will experience distressing withdrawal symptoms. Some of these symptoms can be dangerous and even life-threatening, depending on the substance and how severe your dependence and addiction are.1,2

Alcohol Withdrawal Risk

Alcohol withdrawal occurs in people who have been drinking regularly for prolonged periods. Withdrawal symptoms can start as soon as eight hours after your last drink and typically peak between one to three days. However, this process can go on for a few weeks.3

Psychological symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may include:3

  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Depression
  • Exhaustion
  • Irritability
  • Feeling jumpy or shaky
  • Mood swings
  • Nightmares
  • Difficulty thinking clearly

Some physical symptoms include:3

  • Sweating
  • Dilated pupils
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Pale skin
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Tremors

A more severe form of alcohol withdrawal is called delirium tremens, and it can be potentially fatal without medical detox. This form of alcohol withdrawal is more common in people who heavily consume alcohol every day. Signs of delirium tremens include:4

  • Agitation or irritability
  • Body tremors
  • Changes in mental functioning
  • Sleeping for a day or longer
  • Sudden, severe confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Bursts of energy
  • Quick mood changes
  • Restlessness
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, touch
  • Sleepiness or fatigue
  • Seizures
  • Chest pain
  • Fever

Benzodiazepines Withdrawal Risk

Benzodiazepines are prescription medications used to treat insomnia or anxiety, and examples of benzodiazepines include Xanax or Klonopin.5 Symptoms of withdrawal include:6

  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • Muscle pain or stiffness, particularly in the limbs, back, neck, or jaw
  • Dizziness
  • Shooting paints in neck and spine
  • Visual disturbance, such as blurred vision
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Fainting or dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Delusions or paranoia
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dissociation
  • Depression

Some of these benzo withdrawal symptoms may feel similar to the anxious symptoms someone was having that led them to use benzodiazepines. This can make it difficult to stay sober if you are experiencing all the anxiety that you were trying to avoid. One benefit of medical detox is that some programs may have therapists and other trained professionals who are available to provide you with emotional support during this stage of treatment.7

Additionally, like alcohol, benzodiazepine withdrawal can be potentially life-threatening due to the risk of seizures. This is why medical detox is so important. A medical team can monitor you, provide supportive care and medications, and intervene in the event of a medical emergency.

Opioid Withdrawal Risk

Opioid withdrawal can be dangerous and really difficult to do alone. Going through the withdrawal process in an opiate detox center can help make it more comfortable and ensure you are safe. The symptoms of opiate withdrawal include:2

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle aches
  • Insomnia
  • Runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Yawning

Other symptoms can appear later on during the withdrawal process. These include:2

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Dilated pupils
  • Goosebumps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

These symptoms can be so intense and uncomfortable that people are likely to relapse in order to get the symptoms to stop. This can keep someone stuck in a cycle of withdrawal and relapse. Getting support from an addiction treatment center or opiate detox program can increase the chances of recovering.8

Quitting Drugs Alone: Risk of Overdose After Withdrawal

When someone goes through the withdrawal process, their tolerance is reduced since they are no longer taking the substance.2 With a reduced tolerance, they need less of the substance in order to get high. Using drugs or alcohol after going through withdrawal can be dangerous because if you return to using the same amount as before, you risk overdosing.2

People struggling with opioid misuse are particularly at risk for overdose after withdrawal. Approximately 70% of people who have drug overdose deaths are due to opioid misuse.9

Signs of drug and alcohol overdose may include:3,10

  • Mental confusion
  • Difficulty staying awake
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing
  • Irregular breathing
  • Slow heart rate
  • Clammy skin
  • Low body temperature
  • Paleness
  • Blueish or purple skin, fingernails, or lips

If you or someone else is experiencing symptoms of overdose, call 911 immediately. Get help as soon as possible.

Medical Detox is the Safest Route

Medical detox is a medically supervised withdrawal process that occurs in a hospital setting or a freestanding detox facility. The medical team overseeing this process might include a doctor, nurse, and therapists. This allows the withdrawal process to be done in a safe and optimal way.

During medical detox, the team will administer withdrawal medications, if applicable. For example, benzodiazepines are administered to manage alcohol withdrawal, whereas a long-acting benzo may be administered for withdrawal from a short-acting benzo. And methadone or buprenorphine is often used to manage opioid withdrawal symptoms and cravings.,sup>11

Different types of detox programs are available. Some options include:7

  • Medical inpatient detox: The most intensive level of care in which you receive 24/7 medical supervision and monitoring in a hospital-based setting.
  • Social inpatient detox: You receive around-the-clock care in a residential setting but you don’t receive medical care and support relies heavily on peers. This isn’t recommended for anyone addicted to alcohol, opioids, or benzos, due to the life-threatening risk of withdrawal.
  • Partial hospitalization/intensive outpatient: These detox settings are a step down from inpatient medical detox but are more intensive than standard outpatient. You may receive withdrawal medications and oversight from a nurse while attending detox services for a few hours per day and returning home during non-detox hours. This isn’t recommended if your addiction is severe or if you have a polydrug addiction or co-occurring mental disorder.
  • Outpatient detox: The least intensive option, you receive detox services in a doctor’s office or at an outpatient center for just a few hours per week. This is only recommended for people with a mild addiction and who have a strong support system to help them stay abstinent.

Although detox is often an essential treatment, it isn’t a substitute for formal addiction treatment. After completing detox, it’s important to transition into a substance abuse rehab where you can learn to identity triggers for relapse, use healthy coping skills, and work through any distorted beliefs about drug and alcohol use.9 Much like detox, addiction treatment can occur on an inpatient or outpatient basis, and the right setting for you depends on your unique needs and preferences.

If you are looking for a detox program, call (800) 662-HELP (4357) to speak with a treatment support specialist about your options.

Resources

  1. National Library of Medicine (2018). Opioid Misuse and Addiction.
  2. National Library of Medicine. (2022). Opiate and opioid withdrawal.
  3. National Library of Medicine. (2022). Alcohol Withdrawal.
  4. National Library of Medicine. (2022). Delirium tremens.
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Drug Overdose.
  6. Brett, J. & Murnion, B. (2015). Management of benzodiazepine misuse and dependence. Australian Prescriber, 38(5), 152-155.
  7. National Institutes of Health. (2018). Types of Treatment Programs.
  8. U.S, Department of Health and Human Services. (2021). Opioid Crisis Statistics.
  9. Dydyk AM, Jain NK, Gupta M. (2021). Opioid Use Disorder. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-.
  10. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose.
  11. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2021). MAT Medications, Counseling, and Related Conditions.

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