There are several options for withdrawal. This page focuses on home-based withdrawal rather than going to a drug and alcohol treatment service or withdrawal facility.
It’s possible to withdraw at home when symptoms are predicted to be mild to moderate in severity and support is available from a family member or friend.
If you’re considering supporting someone withdrawing from alcohol and/or other drugs, it’s important that the person speaks to a health professional first as complications can occur and they may need medical assistance. The health worker can also help with post-withdrawal support.
How you can help
Before withdrawal begins
Talk to the health professional supervising the withdrawal to make sure you are clear about your role and understand what you will need to do to help the person through their withdrawal.
Familiarise yourself with the effects of the drug that your friend or family member is using. Know what to expect from the withdrawal, how long the withdrawal symptoms may last, and the drug’s common withdrawal symptoms.
Ask the supervising health professional if they are prepared to prescribe medication that could help with the discomfort of withdrawal.1
Try to make sure that there are no drugs or alcohol in the house so the person going through withdrawal is not tempted.5
It’s important to understand that withdrawing from a drug does not mean the person is no longer dependent on the drug. The person withdrawing will likely need further support afterwards. This includes addressing the underlying issues of their drug use and putting in strategies to help prevent a relapse.
But remember, a relapse doesn’t necessarily mean the person has ‘failed’. Some people can relapse multiple times before they stop using a drug altogether.
However, undertaking a withdrawal usually indicates that a person has recognised the reality of their issue and has made a decision to change.6
Encourage the person you’re supporting to write down why they are choosing to withdraw and the advantages and disadvantages of using drugs. Later, if they experience negative moments or ‘hanging out’, they can look at their list and remind themselves of their reasons for giving up.
Lapse and relapse
Using drugs during withdrawal can happen, so it’s a good idea to talk about this possibility beforehand and plan what to do if it happens.
Using drugs (other than prescribed medication) during withdrawal can be viewed as a lapse or mistake. The person may choose to give up the withdrawal and continue to use the drug (relapse) or accept it as a temporary mistake (lapse) and continue with the withdrawal.
If the person decides that it was only a lapse and continues with the withdrawal, it’s useful to talk about what happened and why, and what worked well or didn’t in helping them through that stage. It's also good to discuss what could be done differently to prevent further lapses.7
Be on the lookout for an overdose if they do lapse or relapse, as tolerance to the drug may be reduced after attempting withdrawal and the possibility of an overdose will increase.
Get support for yourself
You may have to take some time off work and organise additional help to look after other family members.1
Have support organised for yourself, and make sure there is someone you can talk to if things get difficult.
State and territory alcohol and drug information services (ADIS) can direct you to counselling, additional information and referral to services, and can put you in touch with specialist family helplines and support groups.
These services are often run by friends and family members of people who use drugs, so they’ll understand your situation.
To contact the ADIS in your state or territory, you can ring the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015 to be redirected to your state-specific service.
But if you’re not sure what type of information or support you’re looking for, try our intuitive Path2Help tool and be matched with support information and services tailored to your needs and circumstances.
It’s a free and confidential service – speak to a real person for real information about alcohol and other drugs and how you can best support someone you’re concerned about.
Discourage people who use drugs from visiting. Anyone who may cause stress or tension will only make it harder for the person going through withdrawal.1
Be there during the tough times. The media often portrays the symptoms of withdrawal as a person thrashing around on the floor in extreme agony and vomiting. Going ‘cold turkey’ when withdrawing can be extremely uncomfortable, but there have been many advances in the field of recovery and medically supervised detoxification that can help ease painful symptoms. Ask a health professional about this before starting the withdrawal process.
If the person you’re supporting is struggling with cravings, it’s advisable for them to talk to their health professional. Another thing they can do is try calling the alcohol and drug information service (ADIS) in their state or territory and getting some quick advice around managing cravings.
Challenging any illogical thoughts during withdrawal is a very important function of a support person. If the person withdrawing begins to have unpleasant symptoms, or questions what they are doing, encourage them to read through their personal list of reasons for going through withdrawal. It can also be useful to think in a positive way about negative symptoms, such as looking at them as signs the body is getting rid of toxins or doing what it’s supposed to.7
Eating well can reduce mood swings that often feature in withdrawals. Try to encourage good nutrition during the process and as part of the ongoing treatment plan. Poor dietary habits can contribute to increased cravings and the risk of relapse. A varied diet rich in good carbohydrates and proteins, fresh fruit and vegetables, essential fats (oily fish, nuts, etc.) and plenty of water can help minimise withdrawal symptoms.8 Check with the supervising health professional about whether a multi-vitamin supplement would be useful, particularly if the person withdrawing is struggling to eat.
Encourage the person you’re supporting to drink lots of fluids. The recommended daily intake is approximately six to eight glasses (at least 150 ml each) of a variety of non-alcoholic drinks. This could be a combination of water with a dash of lemon juice, fruit juice, cordial mixed with water and non-fizzy mineral water. Also, try to keep fluids up, with the person taking small sips throughout the day.7,9
Keep the person busy so they don’t have time to dwell on how they are feeling. Remember that they’ll have a short concentration span and their memory may not be functioning very well. Watching TV or movies, taking walks or short car rides, and reading magazines may be good activities to try.1
Help the person to manage stress by using basic techniques such as talking, exercise or massage.
It’s important that support is organised after the withdrawal to assist with the person’s anxiety about not using alcohol or other drugs and getting their life back on track. This can play an integral part in relapse prevention.
Appropriate support services may include:
- alcohol and drug support services
- doctor or GP
- individual or group counselling
- outpatient programs
- outreach support
- alcohol and other drug specialists
- self-help and peer support groups
- residential rehabilitation
- health and medical services
- dietician or nutritionist
- welfare services
- accommodation services
- income support services
- advocacy services
- legal services
- employment, education and training services
- BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information. (2012). The coping kit: dealing with addiction in your family.
- Matua Raki National Workforce Development. (2010). P**d off: a guide for people trying to stop using meth/P/ice/speed.
- Campbell, A. (2000). The Australian Illicit Drug Guide. Melbourne: Black Inc.
- Brands, B., Sproule, B., & Marshman, J. (eds). (1998). Drugs and Drug Abuse (3rd ed.). Ontario: Addiction Research Foundation.
- HelpGuide.org. (2016). Alcohol abuse treatment and self-help: how to stop drinking and start recovery.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Principles of drug addiction treatment: a research-based guide.
- Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre & Australian Drug Foundation. (2012). Your guide to drug withdrawal. Melbourne: Australian Drug Foundation.
- Grotzkyj-Giorgi, M. (2009). Nutrition and addiction: can dietary changes assist with recovery? Drugs and Alcohol Today 9(2).
- NSW Department of Health Mental Health and Drug & Alcohol Office. (2007). Drug and alcohol withdrawal clinical practice guidelines.