Craving (withdrawal)

What Is Craving?

When going through withdrawal from alcohol, drug, or prescription medication dependency, craving is a psychological symptom associated with the urge or strong desire to use the substance that a person has stopped using. Cravings can occur soon after a person stops using, but can also occur weeks or months after their last use.

What Is Craving Caused By?

Craving typically occurs once a person has become dependent on a substance and they try to stop using. In the context of alcohol and drug withdrawal, craving occurs because the brain has formed strong memories because of their use. For example, research has shown that simply thinking about drug or alcohol use can cause a surge of dopamine to release in the brain. This is the same chemical makes the person feel “high” when taking a substance.

Visual reminders of drug or alcohol use can cause cravings as well. Seeing a bar or advertisement for alcohol can quickly cause a craving in someone who is recovering from alcohol abuse. Seeing drug paraphernalia (such as a pipe or syringe) can also cause a craving in recovering drug addicts.

Environmental reminders are also largely associated with cravings. When something in a person’s immediate environment reminds them of their drug or alcohol use, even small things like being in a certain place or a particular time of day can elicit cravings.

What Types of Substances Cause Craving during Withdrawal?

There are several substances that cause craving during withdrawal. These include:

  • Alcohol
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Cannabis
  • Heroin
  • Prescription opiates and opioids
  • Prescription anxiety medication
  • Stimulants such as cocaine, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine
  • Spice/K2
  • Prescription sleeping medication
  • Nicotine


The severity of a person’s addiction will determine how bad their cravings are. Different types of drugs will also offer various levels of craving. For example, cravings for opioid painkillers and benzodiazepine can last for months, or even years. People who quit smoking may also experience cravings long after they have stopped using cigarettes.

Symptoms of Craving

While cravings vary amongst different substances, there are general symptoms of cravings caused by withdrawal. These include:

  • The desire to use alcohol or drugs when around them or when in the presence of someone else using them.
  • Thoughts preoccupied with using the substance a person is accustomed to.
  • The yearning to visit people or places associated with use of the substance.

Treatment for Cravings

There are several treatments that have shown to help a person through their cravings and avoid relapse. These can include:

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): CBT works to help people identify the thoughts and emotions that lead to cravings for drugs or alcohol. They learn various coping skills that can be used when cravings occur, as well as ways to improve negative thoughts and replacing them with positive emotions.

Inpatient/Outpatient Rehab: A comprehensive addiction treatment rehab programme can help a person learn to manage cravings. Rehab can also assist recovering addicts learn how to cope with cravings long after treatment is over.

12-Step Programmes: 12-step programmes offer support and advice from other recovering addicts. The encouragement received in a 12-step programme is beneficial for learning to manage cravings. A sponsor (a veteran member of the group) can be called when cravings arise.

Individual Counselling: Counselling can help a person better understand their cravings and the factors associated with them. Therapy with a trained counsellor has shown to be effective for addiction recovery, including managing symptoms such as cravings.

Medication: There are also certain medications that can help a person manage their cravings. Medication is also used to help prevent relapse. Heroin and opioid cravings are often treated with methadone, suboxone, and benzodiazepines such as buprenorphine. Alcohol cravings can be treated with medications such as naltrexone and Antabuse.

Frequently Asked Questions about Cravings

How long does it take to stop craving drugs?

The length of time a person experiences craving depends on the type of drug they used, how long they used for, and the amount they were accustomed to using. Intense cravings are commonly felt 1-2 weeks after discontinuing substance use. Moderate to mild cravings however, can last for several weeks, months, or years.

Why do people experience cravings?

Drug and alcohol use changes the way a person’s brain functions. It is largely responsible for altering levels of dopamine, which is one of the “feel good” chemicals in the brain. When a person has become addicted to a substance and then stops, they may crave it because they brain associates it with feelings of pleasure.

Do cravings last forever?

Addiction affects everyone differently, and recovery can be a lifelong process forever. While cravings may feel they will last forever and never get easier in the days of early recovery, they typically go away after time. However, some people may experience mild to moderate cravings from time to time throughout their life, even years after quitting the substance they were addicted to.

External Links

Drug Cravings, ScienceNetLinks

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