Synthetic Drug Use Signs, Withdrawal Symptoms, and Side Effects

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Synthetic drugs, also known as designer drugs, are created in laboratories using synthetic chemicals rather than being derived from naturally occurring substances. These are often sold as legal alternatives to illegal drugs because their chemical structure is modified to evade legal regulations. However, their production, sale, and use can still be illegal in many jurisdictions due to their potential for harm and misuse.

At Guardian Recovery Network, we understand how challenging it can be to overcome a substance use disorder without professional help, including medical care and emotional support. We are dedicated to providing the highest quality addiction treatment to each individual we treat and supplying them with the tools and resources they need to achieve sobriety and sustain long-lasting abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Contact us today to speak with a skilled Treatment Advisor and learn more about our therapeutic approach to wellness and find out how we can help you overcome addiction.

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Physical & Psychological Side Effects of Using Synthetic Drugs

Synthetic drugs can cause numerous physical and psychological side effects ranging from mild to severe or even life-threatening. These drugs are designed to circumvent government regulation while imitating the effects of other illegal substances. Because virtually all classes of drugs can be synthetically altered in this way, their side effects can be highly diverse and unpredictable.

Synthetic drugs come in all forms, including tablets, capsules, powders, liquids, sublinguals, lozenges, and more. They are often marketed as herbal incense, spices, or bath salts. (1)  Despite being marketed as benign substances, synthetic drugs can be just as, if not more, dangerous and addictive as well-known illegal substances of the same kind.

Short-Term Side Effects Include:

  • Rapid heart rate.
  • Elevated blood pressure.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Impaired motor coordination.
  • Restlessness.
  • Agitation and irritability.
  • Confusion and disorientation.
  • Impaired decision-making.
  • Dilated pupils.
  • Excessive sweating.
  • Headaches.
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness.
  • Mood swings.
  • Anxiety and panic attacks.
  • Paranoia and delusions.
  • Altered perception of reality.
  • Hallucinations.

Long-Term Side Effects Include:

  • Kidney and liver damage and failure.
  • Gastrointestinal issues, such as altered appetite, abdominal pain, constipation, and digestive problems.
  • Respiratory issues, such as persistent cough, difficulty breathing, lung damage, and pneumonia.
  • Cardiovascular issues, such as high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.
  • Impaired cognition, including problems with concentration, problem-solving, judgment, memory, and more.
  • Brain damage.
  • Hormonal dysregulation.
  • New or worsened mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, or psychosis.
  • Visual, auditory, and tactile hallucinations.
  • Delusional beliefs and paranoia.
  • Emotional instability.

How Long Do Synthetic Drug Side Effects Last?

The duration of side effects for any given substance depends on several other factors, such as dosage, frequency of use, tolerance levels, overall health, and individual metabolism. Most often, side effects subside when the drug is discontinued. Still, the duration of synthetic drug side effects could range from less than an hour to over a week after use, and some long-term side effects may require medical or psychiatric treatment. Unfortunately, some side effects, such as brain damage and cognitive impairment, can be permanent.

Synthetic Drug Withdrawal Symptoms Associated With Dependence

If a substance is taken repeatedly for an extended period, the body can begin to depend on its presence to function normally. Once this physiological state, known as dependence, occurs, attempting to quit or cut back on use will lead to unpleasant, sometimes dangerous withdrawal symptoms. (2) As with side effects, the type and severity of withdrawal symptoms will depend on the drug being taken and many other individual factors.

Physical Withdrawal Symptoms May Include:

  • Insomnia and other sleep disturbances
  • Headaches
  • Muscle pain and stiffness
  • Weakness, fatigue, and exhaustion
  • Profuse sweating
  • Excess tear production
  • Dilated pupils
  • Runny nose
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Restlessness
  • Uncontrollable tremors and shakiness
  • Seizures

Psychological & Emotional Withdrawal Symptoms May Include:

  • Drug cravings
  • Rebound anxiety
  • Depression and feelings of hopelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure
  • Lack of motivation
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Mood swings
  • Confusion and disorientation

Withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous. As such, if you are dependent on a substance and are motivated to discontinue use, you are strongly encouraged to undergo medical detox to ensure safety, prevent relapse, and increase the likelihood of experiencing a full recovery.

Synthetic Drug Withdrawal Timeline

Depending on the substance, the individual, and other factors, the timeline for withdrawal can vary significantly. For some drugs, the stage of early acute withdrawal can begin immediately as the drug leaves the body and worsen as time goes on. Other drugs may take up to 24 hours after the last use to cause symptoms. Still, other long-acting substances produce withdrawal symptoms only after a few days.

Withdrawal symptoms for most substances usually reach peak intensity within the first week, although for some drugs it may take longer. After symptoms peak, the withdrawal will begin to enter the sub-acute phase, in which symptoms gradually taper off over a few days to a few weeks. Note, however, that certain individuals may experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), in which some symptoms—primarily psychological—may persist for weeks, months, or longer. (3)

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What Symptoms Are Caused by an Overdose of Synthetic Drugs?

Again, synthetic drugs are unregulated, which means their effects are often unpredictable and overdoses may be more likely. Moreover, the chemical composition of any given designer drug is often impossible to know, so unintentional poisonings can occur.

Synthetic Drug Overdose Signs & Symptoms May Include:

  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Profuse sweating
  • Dilated pupils
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures and convulsions
  • Tremors or uncontrollable shaking
  • Slow, labored, or stopped breathing
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Loss of coordination or motor control
  • Extreme agitation
  • Severe confusion and disorientation
  • Hallucinations
  • Extreme anxiety and panic attacks
  • Paranoia and extreme suspiciousness
  • Aggression or violent behavior
  • Impaired judgment and decision-making
  • Unresponsiveness or loss of consciousness

If you suspect someone may be experiencing a synthetic drug overdose, it is vital to call 911, law enforcement, or emergency services, and seek immediate medical intervention.

Synthetic Drug Misuse & Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders

Synthetic drug misuse can be associated with co-occurring mental health disorders. Individuals who misuse synthetic drugs may already have existing mental health conditions, or the drug use itself can contribute to the emergence of mental health issues.

Key Factors Associated With Synthetic Drug Use & Mental Health Issues Include:

  • Self-Medication—Some people turn to drugs as a form of self-medication to cope with underlying mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Substance-Induced Mental Health Disorders—Synthetic drug use can disrupt brain chemistry and contribute to symptoms such as anxiety, depression, paranoia, or psychosis. (4)

Shared Risk Factors—Drug misuse and psychiatric issues often share common risk factors, including genetic predispositions, environmental factors, childhood trauma, or a family history of mental illness or addiction.

Synthetic Drug Addiction Treatment for Withdrawal Symptoms & Effects

Treating synthetic drug use involves a holistic approach that addresses the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of addiction.

Common Approaches & Treatments Used for Synthetic Drug Addiction Include:

  • Medical Detox—This process involves the withdrawal from the drug in a safe and supervised environment, in which healthcare professionals use medications to manage withdrawal symptoms and ensure the individual’s safety and comfort.
  • Behavioral TherapiesBehavioral therapies can help individuals understand their addiction, develop coping skills, and make positive behavioral changes.
  • Support Groups—Support groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous, can provide valuable peer support and a sense of community during the recovery process.
  • Individualized Treatment Plans—Treatment programs should assess the individual’s specific needs, circumstances, and goals to customize an effective and personalized treatment approach.

Aftercare and Relapse Prevention—After completing intensive treatment, individuals may engage in ongoing therapy, counseling, support groups, and aftercare programs to address any challenges or barriers to sobriety that may arise.

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Contact Us Today for Help With Synthetic Drug Use

Synthetic drug addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease that can lead to devastating consequences, including severe medical complications, worsening mental health issues, and a wide range of social and economic repercussions. Although this condition is not curable, it is very treatable and can be approached comprehensively using intensive, integrated programs and personalized treatment plans.

Through evidence-based methods such as medical detox, individualized therapy, and medication-assisted treatment, we are committed to providing the most current and effective care available to our clients. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation health insurance benefits check and learn more about our evidence-based recovery programs and multiple levels of care.


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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