One of the signs that a person is abusing or addicted to drugs is that the person will experience withdrawal symptoms when use of the drug is stopped or the regular dosage is lowered. However, some people may have trouble being able to tell whether or not a symptom results from withdrawal or it is a side effect of the drug.


Withdrawal symptoms and side effects are two separate sets of symptoms. While they may have some things in common, there are ways to distinguish between them. This makes it easier to tell whether or not the symptoms may indicate an addiction to the drug.

Withdrawal Symptoms

What They Are

As described by MedicineNet, withdrawal symptoms are physical and psychological responses to stopping use of a drug on which the body has become dependent. In essence, they are the result of the body and brain reacting to the loss of a drug that helps them function.

Rather than diminishing once the drug is stopped, these symptoms begin to occur at that point. As an example, WebMD states that alcohol withdrawal symptoms may begin within 4-12 hours of stopping alcohol use. In addition, they can continue for several days afterward.

Often, the symptoms of withdrawal from a drug are uncomfortable enough to contribute to the individual’s cravings and desire to continue using the drug, even when it is not in the person’s best interest to do so.

When They Occur

Withdrawal symptoms do not generally occur unless a person has developed a chemical dependence on the drug, as explained by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Because of this, a person who has just started taking a drug is unlikely to experience extreme withdrawal symptoms after the first use.

Over time, when a person uses a drug on a regular basis, a condition known as tolerance can occur, in which the person begins to need more and more of the drug to experience the same effects that were achieved the first time the drug was used. This decrease in the drug’s effectiveness often contributes to the person abusing the drug. This process is thoroughly explained by Addict Science.

As abuse continues, the person begins to be dependent on the drug to feel good; in other words, if the person stops using the drug, withdrawal symptoms will occur. Often, withdrawal symptoms will continue for weeks, months, or even years after stopping use of the drug, depending on how the drug use originally affected the body.

What They Look Like

Withdrawal symptoms are often a reversal of the effects of the drug, as explained in the book Introduction to Abnormal Child and Adolescent Psychology. For example, a person who takes a stimulant like cocaine may have withdrawal symptoms that include listlessness, excessive sleepiness, and depression. On the other hand, a person who is withdrawing from a depressant like heroin might experience restlessness, anxiety, and jumpiness.

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Side Effects

What They Are

According to MedicineNet side effects as problems that occur when treatment exceeds the desired effect, or when undesirable or bothersome symptoms occur alongside the therapeutic treatment. In other words, side effects are the body’s physical or psychological responses that result from the presence of a drug in the body. Side effects are generally unintended actions that the drug has when it is in the body, that occur alongside the desired effect.

For example, a person who takes anti-anxiety medications may notice that, while taking the drug, heart rate slows and the pupils dilate. These are not the main actions of the drug, but they occur while the drug is in the body.

Most simply, if the drug is stopped, the side effects will stop. However, this is explained a bit more in the next section.

When They Occur

According to WebMD side effects generally occur while a person is taking the drug in question. In particular, side effects can begin to occur as soon as the first dose; otherwise, they may occur once the person has achieved the desired treatment concentration of the drug in the body. The amount of time this takes varies, depending on the type of drug. However, the drug isn’t generally having an effect on the body until it reaches a therapeutic concentration, so it often also takes that long for any side effects to become apparent, unless they are adverse reactions, such as allergies to the chemicals in the drug.

While side effects can continue to occur after the person has stopped taking the drug, they are not a result of the person ceasing intake. The side effects that may continue are a result of the drug’s effect on the body rather than its removal. As a result, most side effects cease quickly after a drug is stopped.

What They Look Like

Often, side effects occur in direct relation to the drug being used. Using the same examples as the withdrawal section, above, an individual taking a stimulant may experience side effects of rapid heart rate or jitters, along with paranoia or hyperfocus. On the other hand, side effects that result from a person taking a depressant include slowed heart rate and breathing, sleepiness, and inability to concentrate.

In other cases, side effects are not necessarily related to the drug’s action in the body. For example, some antibiotics, which are used to treat bacterial infections, can cause anxiety or panic as a side effect.

If a person is experiencing side effects, the answer is often to taper off and stop taking the drug. However, if withdrawal symptoms are occurring when the drug is ceased, a more serious situation may be implicated, and treatment for drug abuse or addiction may be warranted. In either case, consulting with a doctor can be a first step toward relief. In the case of withdrawal and addiction, follow up with treatment from a professional, experienced treatment program. This can help the individual continue the journey toward recovery.