Millions of Americans struggle with substance abuse and addiction. These can include addiction to illegal drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol, and inhalants like glue, paint thinners, and gasoline. The opioid epidemic alone has been found to account for at least 3 million substance abusers, with a note that 11 million Americans are misusing opioid prescriptions. More than 72,000 people died from drug overdoses in the United States in 2017.
Drug withdrawal occurs when someone has developed a dependence on drugs, and then either stops or decreases their use of them. This could be a voluntary change in use (such as when trying to quit), or it may be involuntary (such as not having enough money to buy more drugs). People who are dependent on substances and are not planning to quit often will go to their substance of choice in part to prevent the pain of withdrawal symptoms.
What Is Drug Dependence?
When someone is using an illicit substance regularly, their body adapts and changes as a result. This is called dependence. While addiction is an uncontrollable need that someone feels to use a drug, dependence is the physical adaptation because of exposure to the drug over time. Dependence is medically treatable and requires going through withdrawal.
Commonly Abused Substances
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 230 million people worldwide use illicit substances. People may use these substances to relax, get high, or as an escape from their problems. They may use them to feel part of a peer group in a social setting or alone. Commonly abused substances include:
- Opioids, including both prescription and heroin
- Prescription tranquilizers
- Mushrooms, LSD, and other hallucinogens
- Inhalants like gasoline and paint thinners
- Crystal meth/methamphetamines
Withdrawal symptoms can be both physical as well as psychological. They may vary from person to person, and there are often different withdrawal symptoms associated with different drugs. Alcohol, opiates, and tranquilizers result in more physical withdrawal symptoms whereas cocaine, ecstasy, and marijuana produce more emotional withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms may include:
- Chest pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Inability to concentrate
- Racing heart
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty breathing
- Heart attacks
Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome often results in anxiety, heart palpitations, sweating, vomiting, shakiness, and fever. Someone who is going through alcohol withdrawal may be treated with diazepam. Usually, electrolytes must be corrected, and thiamine is supplemented.
Opioid withdrawal tends to result in agitation, anxiety, diarrhea, dilated pupils, runny nose, shakiness, heart palpitations, sweating, muscle pain, and trouble sleeping. Opioid replacement therapy, such as methadone, may be used to help overcome dependence on opioids.
Cocaine withdrawal has symptoms including paranoia, anxiety, depression, exhaustion, irritability, mood swings, nausea, vomiting, and itching. While numerous medications have been researched for cocaine dependence, none have proven effective.
Withdrawal from nicotine produces symptoms like irritability, anger, depression, anxiety, weight gain, restlessness, insomnia, and difficulty concentrating. Symptoms usually clear up within two to four weeks from quitting nicotine use. There are various patches and gums available over the counter for combatting nicotine withdrawal symptoms.
How to Support Someone Going Through Withdrawal
Going through withdrawal is not easy, and your friend will most likely want to give up when the going gets tough. That’s why it is essential for you to be there to support him or her. Before they go through a planned withdrawal, ask a healthcare professional if they can prescribe anything to help with the symptoms. Familiarize yourself with the signs that you can expect so that you won’t be caught off guard or feel afraid. If the person is choosing to withdraw at home, make sure that there are no drugs or alcohol in the house. A good idea would be to ask the person who is going to go through withdrawal to write down all of the reasons why they want to recover from substance abuse. He or she can then turn to that list for motivation when they are going through the worst of the withdrawal symptoms. Know that withdrawal is not a cure for addiction, but that it is just a first step. The substance abuser will need therapy and long-term help to maintain his or her recovery.
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