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Drug and Alcohol Medical Detox Guide

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Medical detoxification (“detox” for short) centers can help you take the first steps toward a healthy life free from the shackles of substance misuse. This article will help you understand the possible risks of unmanaged drug and alcohol withdrawal. It will also explain how medical detox can help reduce discomfort and help you stay as safe as possible while clearing substances from your body.

What is Medical Detox?

Detox is a process that aims to clear your body of substances of misuse while reducing harm. It is designed to help safely manage withdrawal symptoms.1 Medical detox is medically supervised withdrawal management. Doctors and clinical staff give prescription medicine as needed, closely watch your progress, and keep you as safe and as comfortable as possible.1

In contrast, social or non-medical forms of detox rely more on peer and counselor support and do not often use prescription medicines. These forms of detox often take place in residential settings. While they offer round-the-clock care, they have less direct medical support.1

Medical detox and withdrawal management may include medicine to help reduce the risk of returning to substance misuse by easing withdrawal symptoms, including drug craving. Medical detox is only the first step in the substance abuse treatment and recovery process.1 After detox, you will typically continue treatment to address the mental, social, and behavioral issues that go along with alcohol and drug abuse.1

Why Might I Need Medical Detox?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) suggests an inpatient detox setting with 24-hour medical care may benefit those who:1

  • Have a history of severe withdrawal.
  • Have severe or long-term substance use disorders (SUD).
  • Are at higher risk of suicide.
  • Have an unstable and long-lasting (chronic) health issue, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

The structure, support, and medical oversight offered by medical detox may also benefit people who:4

  • Have certain mental health problems, such as bipolar disorder or depression.
  • Use more than one substance.
  • Have a history of relapse (period of returning to substance misuse after a period of not using).
  • Have an unsafe or unsupportive living environment.

Detox Helps Manage Withdrawal Symptoms

Medical detox also helps manage withdrawal symptoms while keeping you as safe and as comfortable as possible. The withdrawal symptoms you have, how strong they are, and how long they last can vary based on:1

  • The substance you used.
  • The length of time you used it.
  • How much you used,
  • Whether you used other substances.
  • Your overall health.

Common withdrawal symptoms include, but are not limited to:1,4­–5

  • Increased anxiety.
  • Fatigue (feeling tired or weak).
  • Headaches.
  • Body aches and pains.
  • Drug cravings.

Other less common withdrawal symptoms can be severe and life-threatening and may need close medical care. These symptoms include:1,5

  • Seizures.
  • Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there).
  • Severe confusion.
  • Delirium tremens (a severe form of alcohol withdrawal).

What are the Benefits of Inpatient Medical Detox?

The main goals of medical detox are to keep you safe while easing your withdrawal symptoms and to help you get ready for long-term treatment and recovery.1 Inpatient medical detox offers a number of other benefits as well, such as:

doctor takes a patient's blood pressure

  • 24-hour care to address any medical needs and offer quick medical attention in case of any severe issues.
  • More comfortable symptom management.
  • Checking your vital signs (heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure) often.
  • Being able to quickly increase or expand your care level if needed.
  • Helping you move into the next stage in your recovery. This may include inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation (rehab).

What Is the Detox Process Like?

Detox is different for everybody. What one person goes through isn’t likely the same as what you will go through. It depends on a number of things, such as the drug you are using, how long you were using it, any existing health issues, and your recovery or treatment goals. It also depends on the detox setting. Detox can take place in different settings, such as a doctor’s office, an outpatient detox clinic, or an inpatient medical detox center or hospital. You and your care team together will decide which setting is best for your own needs.1

The 3 key stages of the medical detox process are:1

  • Evaluation. You will go through a detailed assessment to talk about your needs and medical history. You will have blood and urine (pee) tests to check for substances in your body. These assessments will help you and your care team create your long-term treatment plan after successful withdrawal.
  • Stabilization. This is the main part of the detox process. You will get medical support (including prescription medicines if needed) to help you with withdrawal symptoms and to become substance-free. During this time, you will also learn about post-detox treatment settings.
  • Getting you ready for further treatment. When you finish detox, your care team will help you transition to the next stage of treatment. Remember that detox alone is often not enough to kick an SUD for good. Attending a drug rehab program will help you address the mental, social, and behavioral issues that go with alcohol and drug misuse. Rehab can also give you long-term skills and strategies to avoid relapse and achieve your recovery goals.

What Medicines Will I Get in Detox?

Medicines are often used to ease withdrawal symptoms, especially for alcohol, benzodiazepines (or “benzos” for short), and opioid withdrawal. Your care team may give these medicines during the stabilization phase as needed, depending on your symptoms and how you progress through withdrawal.1

Alcohol detox medicine may include:1

  • Benzodiazepines (lorazepam, diazepam, or chlordiazepoxide) to manage seizures, anxiety, and other symptoms.
  • Barbiturates (phenobarbital), which may sometimes replace benzos.
  • Medicines to manage seizure disorders, as needed.
  • Blood pressure medicines.

Benzos shouldn’t be stopped suddenly due to the risk of having severe withdrawal symptoms. Benzo detox medicines include:1

  • Slowly weaning you off your current benzo. This is called tapering and means taking smaller and smaller doses over time until you stop taking it completely. Tapering is often advised if you are taking a long-acting benzo. For short-acting benzos, your care team may substitute a longer-acting benzo, such as clonazepam.
  • Anti-seizure medicines, antidepressants, or other medicines to reduce withdrawal symptoms.

Opioid medical detox medicines may include:1

  • Methadone and buprenorphine. These are the most common opioid withdrawal medicines. They help ease or prevent withdrawal symptoms and control cravings. Some people keep taking these medicines after detox as well as part of their long-term recovery.
  • Clonidine. This may help ease most withdrawal symptoms although you may need other medicines to manage insomnia, muscle and bone pain, and headache.
  • Sleep medicines.
  • Over-the-counter pain medicines.
  • Anti-nausea and anti-diarrheal medicines.

How Can I Find Medical Detox Near Me?

American Addiction Centers is a leading provider of medical detox, with detox and rehab centers across the nation. If you’re ready to take the next step, we’re ready and waiting to help you. Call our free, confidential detox hotline at 1-888-509-8965 Who Answers? any time of day or night to talk to a Treatment Advisor about detox options to fit your needs.

Sources

  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). TIP 45: Detoxification and substance abuse treatment.
  2. S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of the Surgeon General. (2016). Facing addiction in America: The surgeon general’s report on alcohol, drugs, and health.
  3. American Society of Addiction Medicine. (2020). The ASAM clinical practice guideline on alcohol withdrawal management.
  4. (2020). Addiction withdrawal symptoms.
  5. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Treatment Services Administration. (2020). TIP 63: Medications for opioid use disorder.

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