Detoxification, the process of clearing drugs, alcohol, and any associated toxins from the body, is an essential first step to effective addiction recovery. Recovery cannot begin without ensuring that someone is sober as well as physically and mentally stabilized. Only then can the person move on to the ongoing care of an addiction treatment program.

The most difficult part of the detox process is the detox side effects, also known as withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal is what happens when someone who has been regularly abusing drugs or alcohol stops using.

The longer and heavier the abuse, the more their body and mind have become not only used to but completely dependent on the chemicals produced by drugs and alcohol, generally to the point where the brain has stopped making these chemicals naturally. This means that when someone stops using, their system goes into a sort of shock as it attempts to regulate itself and cope with the absence of these chemicals that they came to rely on to function.

As a person’s body and brain attempt to recalibrate, the side effects associated with drug and alcohol detox will begin to appear as a way of their system trying to get more of the substance it is dependent on.

Can Withdrawal Kill You?

The short answer is that yes, it is possible to die from complications involved in the process of detox and withdrawal. The longer answer is that it depends on a variety of different factors, including:

  • The substance someone has been abusing
  • How long they have been abusing it
  • How often they were abusing it
  • How much they were taking
  • If they engage in polydrug use
  • Their overall physical health
  • If they have a history of addiction/relapse
  • If they are attempting to detox on their own

An individual’s withdrawal experience, including how life-threatening it may be, depends on their answers to these questions. Common detox side effects associated with many different substance withdrawals are dangerous to the point of fatality and can include seizures, psychosis, and significant cardiac strain.

However, even detox side effects that are on the milder end of the spectrum can become more dangerous if someone is trying to detox alone at home instead of in the controlled environment of a medical detox center. For example, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea can lead to severe dehydration that could require emergency services.

Mood-based symptoms such as depression and suicidal thoughts or behavior are also enough of a reason to choose to detox at a medical treatment center. Couple those symptoms with other common detox side effects like hallucinations and confusion and a person who is trying to detox alone puts themselves at serious and unnecessary risk of self-harm.

Complications that can arise during detox, including delirium tremens and psychosis, can be easily become deadly if not managed by an experienced medical detox team. At a medical detox center, you can be assured of a safe and smooth detox. Doctors are available to monitor your stability and provide detox medications, if needed, to ease withdrawal symptoms and detox side effects.

Common Detox Side Effects

Different addictive substances affect your brain in different ways, so it makes sense that there are significant differences in what kinds of detox side effects you can expect to experience. Some drugs, like opioids, mostly have physical withdrawal symptoms, while others, like cocaine, are mainly psychological.

There are some withdrawal symptoms, however, that are experienced in nearly every kind of substance detox, including:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle pain
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Drug cravings

Along with these symptoms, the following are some of the most common detox side effects of each substance type:


From OxyContin and Vicodin to heroin and fentanyl, opioids are responsible for what has become the worst drug crisis in America. They also are responsible for the most overdose deaths by a significant margin. Despite how dangerous it is to misuse and abuse opioids, especially potent ones like fentanyl, opioid detox is typically one of the relatively milder withdrawal experiences.

While detoxing from opioids is rarely, if ever, life-threatening, it still can be an extremely uncomfortable process, characterized by intense cravings along with all of the previously mentioned detox side effects, as well as:

  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness
  • Inability to focus
  • Agitation and mood swings
  • Tremors
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Fever and chills
  • Uncontrollable crying
  • Fever and chills
  • Uncontrollable crying
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Irregular or rapid heartbeat


Alcohol is one of the most commonly and regularly abused substances in the country, largely because it is legal, easy to obtain, and its use is far more normalized than any of the other substances on this list.

But even though alcohol is widely advertised and just as widely used, alcohol abuse can have severe health consequences as well as some of the more dangerous detox side effects. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are both physical and psychological, including the common symptoms listed at the top as well as:

  • Migraines
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Appetite loss
  • Confusion
  • Delirium tremens (DTs)
  • High blood pressure
  • Hallucinations
  • Suicidal behavior
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Fever and chills

Delirium tremens, in particular, is potentially life-threatening and can manifest as panic attacks, grand mal seizures, delirium-induced psychosis, and cardiac arrhythmias. The risk of relapse is high, and the more times someone goes through the cycle of detox and relapse, the more intense the detox side effects get with each cycle.


Benzodiazepines (benzos for short) are what’s known as central nervous system depressants. Benzos, such as Xanax and Ativan, treat the symptoms of anxiety and insomnia by inducing feelings of calm and sedation. Benzodiazepines withdrawal is similar to alcohol withdrawal, as they are both depressants.

However, detoxing from benzodiazepines is even more dangerous than alcohol, and should not be attempted without at least some level of medical supervision to avoid potentially deadly complications, including benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome. Benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome makes the detox process last significantly longer and consists of more intense and unpredictable versions of common benzodiazepine detox side effects.

Generally, only people who have been very heavily abusing benzos will experience benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome. But the usual detox side effects are plenty enough to deal with already and, along with the mood-based symptoms of depression, anxiety, and insomnia, include:

  • Severe panic attacks
  • Suicidal behavior
  • Memory loss
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Vivid nightmares
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pains
  • Delirium
  • Impaired motor functions
  • Muscle spasms
  • Appetite loss


The detox side effects associated with stimulant withdrawal differ from the other listed substances in that they are mostly psychological and mood-based. This means they lack many of the common physical, flu-like detox side effects.

This is because most stimulants, like cocaine, for example, focus their effects mainly on the brain chemical called dopamine, which is responsible for regulating cognition, emotions, and feelings of pleasure.

Even without symptoms like nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, stimulant detox is still a difficult process. The drugs can cause some of the most powerful drug cravings and severe feelings of depression and anxiety. Other common stimulant detox side effects include:

  • Dehydration
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Vivid nightmares
  • Restlessness
  • Suicidal behavior
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Mood swings
  • Disassociation
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Emotional numbness
  • Migraines
  • Impaired cognition
  • Paranoia
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