There’s a lot of conflicting information about withdrawal from which drugs can be fatal. Withdrawal refers to someone’s various physical and mental effects after they stop using a substance such as prescription medications, alcohol, or recreational drugs. Taking certain substances changes the way the body produces different neurotransmitters. These substances change how the brain’s reward system works, triggering the release of chemicals like dopamine that can be addictive.
Withdrawal occurs when someone abruptly stops or decreases the intake of such substances. As the body is thrown out of balance, symptoms of withdrawal may occur. The severity and type of symptoms will depend on the type of substance used. Without attention, some drugs can cause a fatal withdrawal.
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Almost anyone who drinks excessively experiences withdrawal symptoms from alcohol, whether they have a substance use disorder or not. The so-called “hangover” is indeed a withdrawal symptom of alcohol leaving the system. Fatigue, headaches, sweating, and digestive upset are all common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Obviously, these symptoms aren’t intense enough to kill someone.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include hallucinations, seizures, and delirium tremens (DTs) might. One study in the Oxford University Press Journal Alcohol and Alcoholism found that 6.6% of patients admitted to hospitals with alcohol withdrawal syndrome died from various effects of their symptoms.
Other studies believe the real statistics are anywhere between 5 to 10 percent of those admitted. This later study found that the risk of fatality had to do with DTs’ onset and whether or not other addictions were involved.
It’s important to note that those in these studies were hospitalized after abruptly ceasing their alcohol intake. This happened when people chose to quit alcohol cold-turkey instead of through a medical detox program.
Withdrawal from benzodiazepines will depend on the severity and duration of the addiction. In this case, the risk of grand mal seizures is higher than with alcohol withdrawal. Most of the withdrawal symptoms from benzos are psychological, which can lead to deadly outcomes.
Beyond the general physical symptoms, it is the mental health impact of benzodiazepine withdrawal that becomes life-threatening. Most people struggle with anxiety and panic attacks, depression, confusion, and depersonalization, a sense that one is not real.
Benzodiazepines are sedatives and affect the brain very similarly to alcohol. However, the withdrawal symptoms are often more intense and often lead to thoughts and attempts of suicide, which makes it so deadly. Additionally, people who abuse benzodiazepines often struggle with polydrug addiction as well. Some of the most common combinations include benzodiazepines and alcohol, which increasingly exacerbates withdrawal symptoms when stopped.
At first glance, withdrawal from opioids doesn’t seem life-threatening. Most people experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, and fever. Overall, these symptoms are more distressing than deadly. However, some people experience severe withdrawal episodes.
Additionally, when withdrawing from opioids, the body undergoes a series of mineral and nutrients imbalances that can lead to deadly consequences.
For example, vomiting and nausea are the results of electrolyte imbalances and dehydration, which could cause the body to shut down. Dehydration can cause aggravation of underlying issues due to changes in blood pressure. Unfortunately, choking and aspiration due to vomiting are also common causes of death due to opioid withdrawal.
Some people also attempt quick detox methods not recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One report documents adverse reactions and deadly results from these detox modalities. Not to mention, research shows that quick detox methods without proper medical attention and an inpatient treatment afterward are not effective for treating opioid addiction.
What Causes Death by Withdrawal
Unfortunately, withdrawal is an unpredictable consequence of drug and alcohol addiction. Certain drugs and the use of alcohol can make significant changes in the brain. Each time someone consumes a substance, it triggers a series of changes, becoming permanent over time. These changes can happen very quickly, sometimes in a matter of weeks.
Indeed, some people will undergo withdrawal without complications. Still, others may suffer very severe symptoms that will require medical intervention and, in some cases, might be deadly if not managed properly.
Substance type is a significant factor in whether the withdrawal will be dangerous. The presence of co-occurring mental or physical health conditions also plays a role. Someone with a history of cardiac issues and seizures may be at higher risk of an adverse withdrawal experience.
Relapse and accidental overdose is another risk of trying to detox alone. During the detox process, most people will experience intense cravings for their drug of choice. When detoxing alone, they are more likely to acquire, use, and possibly overdose on drugs.
Withdrawing from Drugs Safely
It’s important to note that withdrawal is rarely deadly when done correctly. Trying to detox at home or alone is possible, but it can also be perilous. If a problem arises, not having the necessary resources can be deadly.
The best way to withdraw from drugs safely is to do so with a professional team. Most addiction treatment facilities offer medical detox programs to help people start their recovery journey. At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, we count on a professional detox staff that can recognize and address any medical and psychiatric emergencies that emerge during your detox process.
Our detox program is designed to customize your treatment plan and address your unique needs, from mental health counseling to address psychological disturbances to medication-assisted treatments for any tapering or substitution that may make the withdrawal process more comfortable and safer.
If you or someone you know is ready to leave substance abuse behind, don’t try it cold turkey. Instead, seek professional care and learn about our detox programs to help you withdraw from addictive substances safely and in a controlled environment. Don’t try to sort out withdrawal from which drugs can be fatal. When your life’s on the line, having the right support system is paramount for survival.