Can Drug Withdrawal Really Kill You?


Anyone who uses drugs and alcohol regularly and in more than casual amounts will likely have some fear of withdrawal symptoms. Usually, those fears have more to do with the desire to avoid the unpleasant physical side effects associated with withdrawal. But, could it be dangerous as well? Can drug withdrawal be deadly? 

This Redemption Recovery article explores different types of drug withdrawal and answers key questions. For example: Can drug withdrawal be fatal?

What is Withdrawal?

The simplest explanation of drug withdrawal is that it is the reaction your body has when a drug is suddenly removed after a period of use. It usually takes at least a couple of weeks of using a substance daily for someone to become at risk of withdrawal effects. 

When you take an addictive substance, like alcohol or prescription painkillers for an extended period, the body adjusts to the presence of that drug. Most drugs that people take to achieve a “high” create their effects by making the body produce more of its natural “feel good” chemicals, like dopamine and serotonin. 

Some drugs work by stopping the brain from breaking those chemicals down and allowing them to build up in the brain. Other addictive drugs may have both of those effects. 

How Does Withdrawal Happen and Why?

The problems caused by drug abuse and addiction are many, but withdrawal happens when you suddenly stop taking the drug. Your body has become used to the artificially higher levels of certain brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. When the alcohol, opioid, or other drug is removed — the levels of those “feel good” chemicals suddenly begin dropping. 

What is worse, is that the brain and body cannot quickly adapt to this. Your brain can’t simply adjust on the fly and go back to creating a “normal” amount of those chemicals so you feel OK. The body’s resources are depleted. Brain chemistry no longer works as it should until it’s had a fair amount of time to heal.  

Because these neurotransmitters are essential to normal functioning, we feel awful when their levels drop, especially when it happens quickly. Add to that the abuse the rest of the body has received while drugs are being abused — like dehydration, malnutrition, and other conditions and it can leave a person feeling pretty terrible for a while. 

Drug withdrawal symptoms are caused by:

  • Suddenly depleted chemicals in the brain when a person stops taking a drug.
  • The brain’s inability to quickly adjust its chemistry to such a big, unnatural change. 
  • Overstimulation of parts of the brain and/or depletion of neurotransmitters.
  • Other damage done to the body due to behavior while a person is addicted. 

When is Drug and Alcohol Withdrawal Fatal?

Withdrawal from drugs or alcohol usually isn’t fatal, but it can be in certain cases. Alcohol withdrawal has several major risks. One is a condition called delirium tremens (DTs), which occurs in a small percentage of people undergoing withdrawal. Symptoms of DTs can include severe confusion, hallucinations, high blood pressure, fever, and rapid heart rate. DTs alone may kill a person, especially someone in poor health. 

The main reason withdrawal from certain drugs like alcohol, benzos, and barbituates can be deadly is found in how these drugs interact with the brain. Alcohol, benzodiazepines, and barbituates all enhance the effect of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which has calming and sedative effects on the nervous system. 

When can drug or alcohol withdrawal kill you?

  • When you drink a lot for several years and stop suddenly without medical support.
  • If you abuse benzodiazepines (like Xanax) and stop suddenly without going to detox.
  • If you are predisposed (more likely to have) seizures and go through unmedicated w/d. 
  • When a person is in poor health the stress of withdrawal symptoms is too much and they don’t have proper medical support. 

Why is Alcohol and Benzo Withdrawal So Dangerous?

Long-term use or addiction to alcohol, benzos, etc, leads to the brain reducing its natural GABA activity and increasing the activity of excitatory neurotransmitters like glutamate. This is the brain’s attempt to “level itself out” and restore balance, which is what our bodies are programmed to do (homeostasis). 

When the drug or alcohol is suddenly gone,  the brain goes into a “hyperexcited” state because the drug keeping it calm is gone, but the neurotransmitters that keep you alert are still there and way out of balance. That imbalance can lead to severe neurological and physiological reactions, including seizures that can kill someone. 

What Decides How Dangerous Drug Withdrawal May Be?

There’s a range of factors that go into determining how dangerous a particular person’s withdrawal experience will be. The biggest one is probably the drug(s) that are being used. Three drugs in particular have especially dangerous withdrawal effects. 

The most dangerous drugs to withdraw from are:

  • Alcohol: Alcohol withdrawal causes more deaths than any other drug withdrawal. The biggest risk factor is fatal seizures, especially in an unmedicated alcohol detox. 
  • Benzodiazepines: Benzodiazepine or benzo withdrawals are dangerous and potentially fatal for similar reasons to alcohol — there is a risk of deadly seizures, especially in an unmedicated detox without medical supervision. Benzos include Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin.
  • Barbiturates: Barbiturates are the third category of drug that can be especially dangerous in withdrawal. Barbiturates aren’t nearly as commonly prescribed today as they were 30-40 years ago, but they are still around and still dangerous. 

Other Factors That Play a Role in How Dangerous Withdrawal is Include:

  1. Lack of Medical Attention: This is #1 for a reason. Medical detox is the best way to avoid withdrawal discomfort or death. 
  2. Poor physical health: Your relative health is a factor too. While deaths due to withdrawal aren’t common, a person who isn’t healthy is at greater risk. 
  3. Past Seizures: People prone to seizures or who have had them in the past (whether in withdrawal or not) can be at great risk of death in withdrawal. 
  4. Age: Older people are often at greater risk for withdrawal complications.

Redemption Recovery: Change Begins with a Phone Call

Redepemption Recovery has helped hundreds of people just like you overcome addiction. We can help you or your loved one too. We are closely affiliated with a dedicated local medical detox to ensure you get the very best care and a safe and comfortable detox. 

After you complete detox — our nationally recognized Ohio program will help you build a solid foundation for enduring recovery, one day at a time. You will get first-class support and TLC here.

But you have to make the first move — give us a call now to learn more about our detox partner program, our partial hospitalization program (PHP), and outpatient programs in Ohio as well. 
You can reach us at (419) 528-8007 — it’s always the right time for recovery!

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