Can You Die from Withdrawal?

Kenneth Gray By Kenneth Gray, MS, CP on September 7, 2017

Being physically dependent on a substance means that your body has adapted so that it now requires drugs or alcohol to keep functioning normally. Suddenly quitting your drug of choice cold turkey can cause drastic physical changes in all of your organs, especially your brain and heart. It’s therefore natural, and even smart, for a person to ask – Can you die from withdrawal? – When they’re considering how to detox from their drug of choice.

Withdrawal symptoms vary widely from person to person, depending on the substance, the amount used, and how long the addiction has lasted. Some substances, like crack cocaine, are so physically addictive that you can become dependent after just one use, while other substances, such as alcohol, require large amounts and long-term use to create the kind of physical dependence that leads to withdrawal.

As you research the best way to start out your recovery, know that you are not alone in your struggle. A SAMHSA study showed that on an ordinary day in 2011, about 28,955 Americans were in detox from drugs or alcohol. In 2009, approximately 23.5 million Americans needed treatment for drug or alcohol abuse but only 2.6 million (11.2 percent) actually received any treatment from a rehab facility.

Rates of addiction are even higher now, and far too many of those addicts attempt to quit using drugs or alcohol on their own, putting their health at risk of serious, even deadly, withdrawal complications which could be avoided with professional detox help.

Which drugs have the most dangerous withdrawal?

Any addict who quits drinking or using drugs will experience some form of withdrawal as their brain and body reacts to the sudden absence of a substance they are dependent upon. Withdrawal is never a fun time, but it can sometimes be quite dangerous. This is the reason many addiction treatment centers start off their recovery programs with a period of medical detox that lasts from a couple of days, to a week, or even longer.

In addition to protecting the recovering addict from illness and death, treatment programs protect their patients from relapse, or other self-destructive behaviors that may result from the anxiety and depression experienced during withdrawal.

So… what drugs can you die from withdrawal?

What is the deadliest form of drug withdrawal?

The winner for most dangerous withdrawal symptoms goes to benzodiazepines, often referred to as benzos. This family of drugs includes Ativan, Klonopin, Halcyon and Valium. The symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal usually begin from 12 hours to a few days after the last dose, depending on your individual body chemistry, or whether you are taking a long-acting or short-acting drug formulation. Symptoms begin very soon with short-acting formulations such as Xanax, (which can cause withdrawal symptoms as quickly as ten hours after the last dose), but longer acting Valium will not cause symptoms until a few days have passed.

Benzo withdrawal symptoms may continue for just a few days, or persist for months or years afterwards. Symptoms can be serious and are notoriously unpredictable. Anyone who has been regularly taking benzodiazepines, whether illicitly, or through a doctor’s prescription, must gradually wean themselves off the drug under a doctor’s guidance to avoid experiencing delirium tremens (symptoms described above, under alcohol withdrawal) with potentially fatal seizures.

Can you die from opiate withdrawal?

Opiate addiction and overdose is sweeping our nation in epidemic proportions. In most, but not all cases, opiate withdrawal is not dangerous, although some of the recently developed rapid detox methods such as Anesthesia-Assisted Rapid Opioid Detoxification (AAROD) have been shown to be fatal in enough cases that it is certain recovering addicts would be better off detoxing in slower, safer ways that have been proven effective over time, such as Medication-Assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine.

Even though opiate withdrawal is not usually fatal, it is very unpleasant. Physical symptoms include sneezing, runny nose, yawning, chills, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. Opiate withdrawal can also lead to severe depression and chronic pain that can make you incredibly vulnerable to relapse. Another common symptom—insomnia—can exacerbate both the physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms.

Can you die from alcohol withdrawal?

Many people are shocked to learn that for addicts who drink a lot, or have been drinking for a long time, alcohol withdrawal can indeed be fatal due to a dangerous withdrawal syndrome called the “DTs,” which is short for delirium tremens.

Delirium tremens usually appears about 48 hours into withdrawal, but sometimes waits seven to ten days before showing up. The following symptoms worsen rapidly, and without emergency medical care, can easily lead to death:

  • Fever
  • Heavy sweating
  • Chest pain and irregular heartbeat
  • Sensitivity to sound, light, touch
  • Deep sleep (lasting for a day or longer)
  • Fear, panic, and unusual levels of excitement and restlessness
  • Delirium (sudden, severe confusion)
  • Hallucinations
  • Severe agitation and hostility
  • Seizures, which can occur without other DT symptoms

Can you die from heroin withdrawal?

Heroin is an opiate drug, and therefore creates an unpleasant, though usually not dangerous, set of withdrawal symptoms like those described above. Nevertheless, it is still a very bad idea to try and detox from heroin at home.

Most heroin withdrawal symptoms pass after the first seven days, although some symptoms, such as irritability, insomnia, anxiety, depression and the inability to feel pleasure, can last for weeks or months after. The emotionally debilitating nature of these symptoms put recovering addicts at an extreme risk of relapse, and this is where things get deadly—the majority of heroin overdoses occur when addicts attempt to use after successfully going through physical withdrawal, but while still suffering from the emotional and psychological symptoms of giving up heroin. When the recovering addict relapses, they attempt to use at the dosage they were accustomed to at the time they quit, not realizing that due to their new lower tolerance, such a dose will now be fatal.

Can you die from meth withdrawal?

Withdrawal from meth begins with serious fatigue and an unusual amount of time spent sleeping, often with unpleasantly vivid dreams. Recovering addicts usually become depressed during this time as well. Over the next few days, brain fog and mood swings begin. While none of these symptoms are dangerous physically, for many, withdrawing from meth can cause incredibly dangerous emotional and psychological symptoms, such as paranoia, extreme anxiety, psychosis, hallucinations, severe depression, and suicidal thoughts. These symptoms are not directly fatal, but they can easily lead you to hurt yourself or others, not to mention putting you at risk of relapse and overdose.

Can you die from cocaine withdrawal?

Standard cocaine is already addictive and crack cocaine is one of the most addictive drugs in the world. Cocaine withdrawal symptoms include extreme fatigue, low mood, and severe depression, accompanied by a lot of sleep that does not make you feel well rested. While these and other cocaine withdrawal symptoms are not fatal, life-threatening seizures can result in anyone who has been abusing cocaine and alcohol together. In addition, the severe depression, paranoia, and aggression that can arise during the detoxification process may put you at risk of harming yourself or others.

Detox and Withdrawal Can Pose Deadly Health Risks, No Matter the Substance

Even if you haven’t been a heavy user or drinker, haven’t been addicted very long, and your drug of choice does not cause particularly serious withdrawal symptoms, you could still be risking your life by attempting to detox at home on your own.

Many addictions lead to serious health complications, such as how IV drug use can lead to infections of the heart lining and valves, as well as HIV and Hepatitis B and C. Even smoking marijuana can lead to a serious case of bronchitis. The shock of a chemically dependent body experiencing withdrawal—even mild withdrawal—can be enough to cause these kinds complications to act up in potentially fatal ways. In addition, many medical conditions can be masked by drug use, and then surface with dangerous symptoms during withdrawal.

Sometimes it isn’t the withdrawal symptoms themselves, but a chain of events caused by those symptoms that can be fatal. For example, many people experience vomiting and diarrhea during withdrawal, and are unable to keep down food or water. This can lead to severe dehydration, which can cause fainting, kidney problems, and/or heart irregularities due to electrolyte imbalances. Many addicts who detox at home neglect their health during withdrawal because they feel so terrible, and this can lead to malnutrition, infections, and other problems that can be fatal without prompt medical treatment.

There are also mental and emotional conditions such as depression and anxiety that can be masked by drug or alcohol abuse. While detoxing from substances, not only will these mental health issues resurface, they will be stronger than before, exacerbated by the physical effects of withdrawal. The resulting emotional instability can easily lead to self-destructive behaviors. Furthermore, drug use in general, regardless of pre-existing mental health disorders, puts individuals at a 40 to 60 percent greater risk of suicide than the overall population.

Besides, isn’t the whole point of suffering through withdrawal to live a healthy life without substance abuse? Since studies show that addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease that requires professional treatment to manage, so you may as well seek out a rehab program that offers medical detox.

The Importance of Medical Detox

When you get clean with the guidance of a treatment facility that provides medical detox services, you will have the safest and most comfortable detox experience possible. It may still be unpleasant, but it won’t be dangerous, and the facility supervision will be a further check against relapse.

If you detox under 24/7 medical care, then any health conditions or complications that arise during the process can be immediately and effectively addressed. Even an outpatient medical detox will keep you safer, as medications like methadone for heroin, or Librium for alcohol, will prevent withdrawal symptoms and cravings. This will also put you in a more receptive frame of mind for other recovery interventions, such as individual, group and family therapy.

After detox, continued treatment with antidepressants or opiate replacement drugs can be a lifesaver during the recovery process. Methadone, for example, not only blocks withdrawal symptoms and opiate cravings, it also blocks opioid receptors in the brain so that patients cannot get high or overdose on opiates if they relapse—they can, however, overdose on other families of drugs, such as stimulants.

Once they are stabilized by methadone, recovering addicts are able to fully engage with the intensive self-transformation necessary for long-term abstinence. Counseling and life changes may require the support of many months, or even a year or two of methadone maintenance to ensure recovery success. Studies have shown that the greatest benefits of methadone maintenance treatment are received during the first year.

Don’t Become Another Withdrawal Tragedy

Many famous and talented people have died while trying to detox without professional help. Singer Amy Winehouse died in 2011 while attempting to quit drinking. She was detoxing alone at home when she experienced a seizure that proved fatal without medical treatment.

Actor Nelsan Ellis, who played Lafayette Reynolds on HBO’s “True Blood” died this past summer while trying to detox from alcohol at home. A chain of withdrawal reactions led to heart failure—he developed a swollen liver and a blood infection, his kidneys shut down, and then his blood pressure dropped and his heart began to race out of control. Ellis spent four days in a Brooklyn hospital before passing away on July 8th, 2017.

Don’t risk becoming an example of the dangers of undergoing withdrawal at home. Find help through a qualified addiction treatment facility that can safely guide you through the detox process. Not only is it better to begin the work of recovery feeling strong with a positive frame of mind, you cannot recover at all if you become another tragic victim of drug and alcohol withdrawal.