Over time, regular use of large amounts of alcohol or addictive drugs alters brain functions, making your body physically dependent on the substance. Physical dependence means your body has adapted to the presence of the substance and demands higher doses to deliver the desired effect. The need for higher doses is called tolerance and often leads to addiction. If you abruptly stop taking the substance or drastically reduce your regular amount, physical and mental withdrawal symptoms will occur.1
What Causes Withdrawal Symptoms?
Addictive substances upset the natural balance between your body and brain. Alcohol and certain drugs disrupt neural processing, triggering the brain to send abnormal signals affecting life-sustaining functions. Addictive substances also cause significantly greater than normal amounts of “feel good” chemicals like dopamine to flood the brain, reinforcing the desire to repeat the experience.2
The brain forms a new state of equilibrium as it adjusts levels of neurotransmitters to accommodate the presence of alcohol or drugs, although it is not a natural balance. If you stop taking the drug or alcohol or take much less than usual, your brain is suddenly thrown into a new state of imbalance, causing physical and mental withdrawal side effects.3
The severity of withdrawal symptoms varies for each person. Besides the specific substance or combination of substances used, factors that impact severity include:4
- How long you used the substance from which you are withdrawing
- The amount of the substance that you regularly used
- Other co-existing health conditions, such as diabetes, depression, or high blood pressure
Withdrawal occurs as your body rids itself of toxic substances (detox). The withdrawal method from alcohol or drugs significantly impacts the severity of symptoms and inherent danger. Quitting “cold turkey” on your own versus undergoing medical detox supervised by people trained in addiction medicine can be a vastly different experience.
If your body has become physically dependent on a substance and you quit cold turkey, withdrawal symptoms can be highly uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. It is always best to consult with a doctor or addiction specialist before stopping any addictive substance.5
It is possible to die from alcohol and benzodiazepine withdrawal, but the likelihood depends on the substance or substances you are addicted to and the severity of your addiction. However, most addictive substances lead to impaired judgment, physical and mental harm, and risky behavior, increasing the chance of death from a motor vehicle or other injury. Some substance withdrawal effects include violent or aggressive behavior, which can also be deadly.6
Can You Die From Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal is especially dangerous after long-term use and can be fatal. Experts recommend those with moderate to severe alcohol use disorder undergo withdrawal at a medical detox facility.7
The most severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include hallucinations, seizures, or, in a small percentage of cases, delirium tremens (DTs).8 Seizures can be generalized and of short duration or the more severe status epilepticus, which are seizures that last a dangerously long time or occur very close together, and can lead to disability or death.9,10
Although DTs only occur in three to five percent of those in alcohol withdrawal, they can be deadly. Research finds up to 37 percent of people with DTs will die unless they receive appropriate treatment.11
Case studies have identified genetics as a possible factor concerning the severity of alcohol withdrawal.12
Can You Die From Drug Withdrawal?
As mentioned above, withdrawal symptoms vary in severity depending on the specific drug, how long and how much you have taken it, and other factors, including your overall physical and mental health.
Using a combination of drugs with or without alcohol increases the danger of overdose and the potential severity of withdrawal. In particular, any combination of opioids, benzodiazepines, stimulants, or alcohol increases the risk of adverse reactions, including suicidal ideation from withdrawal.13
Adverse reactions can happen during withdrawal from any addictive substance; however, certain drugs present more withdrawal risks than others.
Withdrawal From Benzodiazepines
Often prescribed to treat anxiety or insomnia, benzodiazepines can present withdrawal risks with abrupt cessation, especially if you have abused the drug or taken large doses.14 If you have regularly used benzos for one to six months or more and suddenly stop taking them, you can experience life-threatening seizures.15 A medically supervised tapering program will keep you safe and more comfortable as you detox from benzodiazepines.16
Withdrawal From Opioids
Although withdrawal from opioids can be uncomfortable, it is not usually life-threatening.17 However, the method of withdrawal is critical. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found rapid heroin detoxification can be fatal. Additional studies have found rapid heroin detox increases the risk of abnormal heart rhythm, acute renal failure, and suicidal ideation.18
Even though death from fentanyl or other opioid withdrawal does not occur often, untreated withdrawal symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea can cause dangerous dehydration and unsafe sodium levels to accumulate in the blood, which can cause heart failure. As with withdrawal from alcohol or other addictive substances, medically supervised detoxification is your safest option for opioid cessation.19
Withdrawal From Stimulants
As with other addictive drugs, withdrawal from stimulants is rarely deadly but may trigger dangerous depression and other negative thoughts that can lead to suicidal thoughts or behavior. Experts encourage those detoxing from a stimulant drug to do so under medical supervision and close monitoring for depression.20
Withdrawal From Antidepressants and Sleep Medications
Antidepressant withdrawal is not typically dangerous; however, you may experience a return of depression, which can be concerning. Although most people with depression do not commit suicide, clinical depression does increase the risk.21
You may experience rebound insomnia if you suddenly stop taking a prescription sleep medication, which can lead to nightmares and anxiety.22 Although you are unlikely to die from sleep medication withdrawal, be sure to talk to your doctor about feelings of anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts.
Bottom line? You are infinitely more likely to die from continued alcohol or drug use than withdrawal. You and your loved ones deserve a better quality of life. Begin your recovery journey with medical detox to ensure you remain safe and comfortable throughout the process.
Contact the experts at Gallus Medical Detox Centers to learn how they remove the fear of detox.