Nausea and Vomiting From Drug Withdrawal

When to Seek Medical Help and Other Symptoms

glass of water on counter with man vomiting in toilet in background
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Unless you go through a very gradual tapering process, usually under medical supervision, withdrawal symptoms are a normal and expected part of coming off alcohol and drugs. Two common withdrawal symptoms are nausea (a feeling of sickness in the stomach) and vomiting.

Withdrawal nausea and vomiting are uncomfortable and unpleasant symptoms that occur among people who have been addicted to some drugs, particularly alcohol and opiates, or even after a period of intense substance use. Symptoms may range from mild to severe.

How to Cope

The following strategies can help control withdrawal nausea and vomiting:

  • Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subcarbonate) may help ease withdrawal nausea and vomiting.
  • Acupuncture can help relieve withdrawal nausea and vomiting symptoms. If you can't get an acupuncturist to visit, you can stimulate the point associated with relieving nausea by pressing or gently massaging the area on your wrist about two inches down from the crease at the base of your hand, just between the tendons. This point is called pericardium 6, or P6 for short.
  • You can also stimulate the P6 point with Psi bands, commonly marketed for motion sickness, or with a CES unit with electrodes applied to P6.
  • One of the main risks with vomiting is dehydration, so get plenty of water or other clear drinks.
  • Fluid loss is not the only problem with dehydration; you also risk the loss of electrolytes, particularly if you also have diarrhea. Drinking rehydration fluid, which is available from drug stores, can help you avoid this. You can also add one teaspoon of sugar and one teaspoon of salt to two liters of water to make up your own inexpensive rehydration fluid.
  • You may prefer to avoid food intake until the initial acute withdrawal phase has passed, although for some drugs, such as opiates, this may last several days to a week. When you feel able to eat, choose bland foods, such as white toast, white rice, and bananas, and avoid spicy foods.

When to Seek Medical Help

Remember, although nausea and vomiting are a normal part of withdrawal, if nausea or vomiting symptoms continue, they could indicate another underlying condition such as pregnancy, food poisoning, migraine headaches or peptic ulcer.

See your family doctor if withdrawal nausea and vomiting symptoms have not ended a week after discontinuing drug or alcohol use to rule out or treat these other possible causes.

The wear and tear caused by repeated vomiting may result in vomiting blood. However, blood in your vomit could indicate a very serious medical condition. Therefore, if you see any blood in your vomit at any time, you should seek medical attention immediately.

Other Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal can also cause other symptoms, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Nightmares
  • Mood swings
  • Fatigue
  • Jitteriness
  • Clouded thinking
  • Irritability
  • Headache
  • Increased heart rate
  • Clammy skin
  • Sleeping problems
  • Tremor
  • Appetite loss
  • Paleness
  • Sweating

As with nausea and vomiting, if these symptoms don't go away after you have stopped using alcohol or drugs for a week or two, they could indicate another medical condition, and you should see a doctor.

Ongoing feelings of depression or anxiety, or severe, uncontrollable mood swings may indicate that you have another mental disorder, for which you could be treated. Your doctor will need to determine whether the emotional symptoms were caused or induced by the drug, or are part of a condition you had before using the drug. This can affect the right kind of treatment, so it is important to answer all of your doctor's questions accurately.

Delirium Tremens: A Severe Form of Alcohol Withdrawal

Particularly if alcohol use has been severe and prolonged, a more severe, and potentially deadly, form of alcohol withdrawal can occur called delirium tremens. Symptoms usually start 48-96 hours after your last drink and may include:

  • Light, sound and touch sensitivity
  • Fear
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Activity increase
  • Tremors
  • Irritability
  • Problems focusing
  • Mood swings
  • Feeling wiped out or sleepy
  • Hallucinations
  • Delirium
  • Sleeping deeply, which may last a day or more
  • Excitement

If you or someone you love has any of these symptoms after stopping alcohol use, this can be a sign of a medical emergency, so you should seek treatment immediately.

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Article Sources

  1. Lin JG, Chan YY, Chen YH. Acupuncture for the treatment of opiate addiction. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012;2012:739045. doi: 10.1155/2012/739045

  2. UCLA Center for East-West Medicine, Acupressure Point P6: Pericardium 6 or Nei Guan

  3. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Delirium tremens: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia