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Signs Your Kid is Going Through Withdrawal and Needs Help

Medically Reviewed By: Benjamin Caleb Williams RN, BA, CEN

Written By: Gary Bowers

Article Updated: 08/10/2020

If your child has been hiding their drug use, they are likely to attempt hiding their withdrawal symptoms as well. Recognizing the signs in someone else can enable you to offer help at a time when it is needed most. A child experiencing the discomfort of drug and alcohol withdrawal may be in enough pain that they will readily accept help.

In This Article:

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Signs Your Kid is Experiencing Withdrawal

Some common and obvious signs of adolescents going through withdrawal can be difficult to identify. The early teen years are drought with mood swings and behavioral changes, although those signs exhibited during withdrawal are often amplified and intense versions of these changes. Some of these signs include:

  • Physical sickness such as vomiting, nausea, flu-like symptoms
  • Decreased interest in classes and extracurricular activities
  • Unexplained changes in social life, behavior, or personality
  • Shifts in sleeping patterns and fluctuations of weight
  • A drastic change in grades or academic performance
  • Uncharacteristic mood swings, depression, or irritability
  • Sneaky or suspicious behavior
  • Inexplicable anger or aggression

Does Your Kid Have Withdrawal Symptoms?

The symptoms of acute withdrawal can vary from person to person and drug to drug. There are many factors that can influence the severity of withdrawal symptoms. Some of these factors are:

  • History of Drug Use: The types of drugs and the method of drug use will heavily influence withdrawal symptoms. The amounts used and duration of use will also be a factor.
  • Health History: Underlying medical conditions and co-occurring mental illness will have an impact on withdrawal symptoms. Anyone with diabetes, a history of seizures (epilepsy), heart problems, and kidney troubles will be especially vulnerable when in withdrawal.

There is no way to accurately predict how a teen will respond to drug withdrawal. Even with drugs like opiates, which tend to produce very consistent withdrawal symptoms, detox can go from bad to worse very quickly. Detox symptoms can be grouped into two categories; physical and mental. Let’s look at each one in more detail:

Mental Withdrawal Symptoms

Drug withdrawal wreaks havoc an adolescent’s body. Brain chemistry and functions will be impaired during this time. In drug and alcohol use, the brain can compensate to adjust to the presence of drugs. When substances are removed from the body, the brain will take time to readjust, and this can cause psychological side effects. Additionally, the thought of not having a drug, the challenge of quitting, guilt regarding past use, etc. can lead to further problems. Mental withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Anger, aggression, irritability
  • Psychosis (more common with alcohol, marijuana, and stimulant withdrawal)

These symptoms are almost universally experienced in drug detox, however, the expression of these symptoms, and their severity, will vary. These symptoms can be the result of drug use as well – not just withdrawal – so it is important to also be mindful of changes or fluctuations. For example, if your child seems more depressed than usual, it could be a sign of withdrawal.

Physical Withdrawal Symptoms

The physical symptoms of drug withdrawal – and their severity – will be more dependent upon the type of drug and the history of use. That said, there are some common symptoms to be aware of:

  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
    —Common in opiate withdrawal. Possible in alcohol, sedative withdrawal
    —These can be very dangerous symptoms and require medical attention.
  • Sweating
    —Common withdrawal symptom for most drugs
  • Body/Joint aches and pains
    —Common in opiate withdrawal. Possible in stimulant, alcohol, and sedative withdrawal
  • Increase heart rate and blood pressure
    —Common withdrawal symptom for most drugs but more pronounced with opiates and depressants like alcohol or benzodiazepines
  • Shaking, trembling
    —Common with alcohol, opiate, and stimulants

Is Withdrawal Dangerous?

Withdrawal can be extremely dangerous and can sometimes be deadly. One of the dangers of withdrawal is that the pain of the symptoms leads teens to continue using drugs to ease their pain. Professional detox is always recommended, but withdrawal from certain drugs can be deadly if untreated.

  • Alcohol: Alcohol withdrawal can be deadly, even in young people. Exposure to alcohol over time alters brain chemistry. The brain gradually loses its ability to regulate itself naturally. This can cause seizures and delirium tremens, both of which can be deadly. Doctors can prescribe medications to reduce this risk. Observation and medical intervention can reduce or address other symptoms. Professional detox is always recommended when dealing with alcohol.
  • Benzodiazepines: Benzodiazepines (benzos) like, Xanax and Klonopin are prescription sedative drugs. Benzos are typically prescribed to treat anxiety disorders. When benzos are abused, brain chemistry can be altered drastically, and much like alcohol, benzo withdrawal can be deadly. The most dangerous benzo withdrawal symptoms are seizures and high blood pressure (which can cause heart failure).
  • Opiates: Withdrawal from opiates like heroin, oxycodone, and Vicodin is known for being painful and extremely uncomfortable, but the serious symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea can be deadly if untreated. Depending on the extent of opiate abuse, doctors may prescribe medication to assist with the withdrawal process. There are FDA-approved drugs, like buprenorphine, for treating opiate abuse.

Paraphernalia: The Hints To Worsening Withdrawal

Finding drug paraphernalia can be an extremely difficult situation for a parent. Even if drug use was expected, drug paraphernalia represents the harsh reality of drug abuse. The type of paraphernalia and the condition it’s in can provide insight into the level of addiction, and thus the severity of withdrawal. In any event, medical detox is always recommended. Even when symptoms seem mild, things can always take a turn for the worse.

Pipes, Vape Pens, and Other Smoking Appliances

Marijuana is by far the most commonly used illicit drug. There are a number of ways to consume marijuana, but smoking and vaping continues to be the most common way of using marijuana because the effects can be felt more quickly. Vaping is becoming the most popular form of marijuana consumption. Vaping is also more dangerous because it’s typically a very high concentration of THC, the active chemical in marijuana. If your child is vaping marijuana, this could indicate a potential for more severe withdrawal symptoms – especially psychosis or other psychotic episodes. Pipes used for marijuana will typically have a strong odor of marijuana and smoke. They come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and materials. Marijuana pipes will also have a bigger “bowl” (where drugs are put before smoking).

Pipes used for other drugs like meth or crack cocaine will typically be glass, with a bulb on one end, and the mouthpiece at the other. Tin or aluminum foil can also be used for smoking. Pipes and aluminum used for smoking drugs like meth or crack cocaine may not have immediately detectable odors, or they may smell of burnt plastic or chemicals. Withdrawal from drugs such as these will be dangerous, and medical detox would be strongly recommended.

Straws, Hollowed Pens, and Cards

Straws, hollowed pens, and cards are worrisome signs that drugs are being snorted – that is crushed into a powder and sniffed into the nose via the straw or hollowed pen. The cards – like credit cards, ID cards, or gift cards – are used to crush and line up drugs for snorting. Snorting – especially with prescription pills – can indicate that the addiction is very severe, which could be an indication that withdrawal will be severe. Drugs that are frequently snorted are crushed prescription pills (oxycodone, hydrocodone, etc.), meth, cocaine, and heroin. Withdrawal from any of these drugs will be dangerous and should be supervised in a detox facility.

Spoons and Needles

Spoons and needles are telltale signs of intravenous drug use. If your child is using drugs intravenously, that would indicate a much stronger addiction – and thus a much more painful and dangerous withdrawal. Finding syringes would be a strong indicator that intravenous drugs are being used. There should be no reasonable situation in which your child should have syringes – unless they have a disease like diabetes. Spoons used for intravenous drug use will likely be bent oddly. The underside of the spoon may be blackened from heat exposure, and the “bowl” of the spoon may appear dirty, sticky, and/or oily. Drugs that are frequently consumed intravenously are heroin, meth, and cocaine. If someone’s addiction has reached the point of intravenous use, the stakes are extremely high. At this stage of addiction, the risks of disease and overdose are significant. Professional treatment in a medical detox center can provide the best chances of recovery.

Getting Detox For Your Kid

It’s never too late to get help for your child. Depending on the particular drug your kid was using and how long they used, drug withdrawal can range from simply uncomfortable, to quite dangerous and painful. Medical detox centers have the knowledge, expertise, and professional staff needed to oversee the entire process. Successful detox from drugs is a foundation for recovery. Getting detox for your child would generally be focused on physical and mental health.

—Medical Detox: Doctors and medical professionals will oversee all aspects of the health of your child in detox from the moment they arrive. Medications can be prescribed to treat all the symptoms of drug withdrawal. Depending on the drugs used before detox, doctors may prescribe specific withdrawal medications. Symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea can be monitored and treated promptly, preventing potentially deadly dehydration. 24/7 medical observation can also ensure serious complications are recognized and addressed immediately.

—Dual Diagnosis Detox: These programs are specifically intended for those with a substance use problem and a diagnosed mental illness. Staff psychiatrists and therapists will work with your child on addressing mental health risks associated with drug detox. In addition to the common mental health symptoms of withdrawal, doctors may also diagnose and treat other co-occurring mental illness. Mental illness can be treated medically, but also therapeutically and holistically, with various forms of talk therapy available. Addressing the mental health needs of children in detox can play a huge role in the success of the detox process itself. Therapy can also reduce the risk of relapse.

There is no single path to follow when treating addiction. Even when it’s unclear what could be done, taking action – any action – is the first step towards your child’s recovery. The longer a child is using drugs, the more danger they are exposed to. Seeking the help of a detox center could potentially save your child’s life.

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