“Can withdrawal kill you?”
“What is the prevalence of heroin withdrawal death?”
“Can you die from opiate withdrawal?”
We know we hit rock bottom. We don’t want to live like this anymore. We are ready to end our addiction, but we want to make sure that we can survive it.
Withdrawal for a person with an addiction can be as nerve-wracking as the addiction itself. Withdrawal becomes synonymous with avoidance. Addicts experience withdrawal on a regular basis, but to give up a drug of choice completely is terrifying.
As loved ones of an addict or as addicted persons ourselves, we want to know the risks. We want to know how to withdraw safely so that we can renew our lives and support our loved ones.
The reality is that withdrawing from certain substances can be fatal. The right treatment and care, however, can save your life.
Read on to learn what substances are linked to withdrawal deaths, the safest ways to detox, and a basic understanding of why withdrawal occurs.
Can Withdrawal Kill You?
Tolerance, Addiction, and Withdrawal:
As humans, we are wired to seek out pleasure and avoid pain. Drugs create a shortcut to the reward center of the brain. Addictive drugs release two to ten times more dopamine, the pleasure hormone, than natural rewards, such as having your first kiss.
The brain adapts to the overflow of dopamine caused addictive substances by eliminating or reducing dopamine receptors. Over time, addicted persons experience intense cravings for the drug due to the memory of pleasure, learned behaviors, and altered brain and body chemistry.
The body also develops a tolerance to its effects.
Tolerance, the need for more and more of the drug, along with the type of substance and amount used is what determines the severity of withdrawal.
Symptoms of withdrawal from the addictive substance are the body’s way of saying, “Hey! I need that in order to function in my adapted way.” Withdrawal symptoms are psychologically and/or physically painful and the addicted person interprets these messages as saying, “Have more or be in pain.”
No matter what substance you or your loved one is addicted to, it is critical to always consult a medical profession or addiction treatment center prior to attempting to withdrawal alone or at-home.
Withdrawal and How It Can Kill You:
Can alcohol withdrawal kill you? The answer is “yes”.
Withdrawal from alcohol can be fatal due to delirium tremors (DT’s). However, death from alcohol withdrawal is uncommon.
DT’s consist of extreme confusion, hallucinations, fever, and seizures. Around 5% of people addicted to alcohol experience DT’s. 5% to 25% of alcoholics who experience delirium tremors will die from resulting complications such as head trauma, vomit inhalation, and post-traumatic epilepsy.
Those most at risk for developing DT’s are those who drank significant amounts of alcohol on a consistent basis for many years. Co-occurring medical problems, such as certain infections, altered blood chemistry and those with Wernicke’s Syndrome (thiamine deficiency) also increase the risk of mortality.
More than 90% of all delirium tremors occur within 48 hours of quitting. However, around 3% of DT’s occur between 5 and 20 days after ceasing usage.
This is why it is vital to seek medical attention for those who meet these criteria and to inform clinicians that alcohol withdrawal may occur. The support of medical staff and medications can greatly lower the risk of death and ease withdrawal symptoms.
Withdrawal from Benzodiazepines, otherwise known as tranquilizers, can result in death.
Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed drugs used to treat anxiety and insomnia. Examples of benzos include Valium (diazepam), Ativan (lorazepam), and Xanax (alprazolam).
The mood-altering effects of this class of prescription drug make it a prime candidate for abuse to occur. However, those who are prescribed the medication, take the prescribed amount and are under the care of a medical clinician rarely die from withdrawal.
The main culprit of deaths related to benzodiazepines occur in people who abuse it by taking more than is required, are unmonitored by a medical clinician, and/or obtain it illegally or through “doctor shopping.” Those who take high doses for extended periods of time are most at risk.
Life-threatening benzo withdrawal symptoms include seizures, such as grand mal seizures, suicide, and self-harm. Grand mal seizures occur more frequently in those detoxing from benzos compared to alcohol withdrawal.
Consult a doctor regarding withdrawal from benzodiazepines, especially, if you are taking short-acting versions such as Ativan. A medical clinician will monitor withdrawal symptoms and taper off the medication in increments.
If the medication was obtained in an illegal or frowned upon manner, still seek medical attention. Step forward and allow medical staff to monitor your condition so the risk of death is reduced.
Opiates, also known as “narcotics”, are used to treat pain. They include prescription drugs such a codeine, fentanyl, methadone and morphine. Heroin is also within this class of drugs.
Misuse of opiates is on the rise in the United States, costing the U.S. an estimated $78.5 billion dollars in lost productivity, treatment, and criminal justice involvement. Unfortunately, 20% to 29% of people who have a prescription misuse them. Additionally, 80% of those who misuse prescription opiates will also use heroin.
So, can you die from opiate withdrawal?
Withdrawing from opiates can result in death. The kind of opiates used, length of time of use, and the method the addicted person used to consume the drug will all determine the severity of symptoms and risks involved.
Withdrawal from opiates results in flu-like symptoms such as vomiting, fever, and diarrhea. If vomiting and diarrhea are left untreated, then dehydration and elevated blood sodium level can transpire causing heart failure and in some cases death.
Medically monitored withdrawal from opiates whether prescribed or not can ease the symptoms and reduce the likelihood of death.
Want to learn more about addiction, withdrawal, and sobriety?
Check out our blog for additional resources that can help in addiction treatment and recovery.
Remember to always consult a doctor when considering withdrawing from drugs or alcohol. In the event of an emergency situation, call 911 immediately.