When understanding how to treat a substance abuse disorder or addiction, many people are relatively uninformed and blindly enter treatment without knowing what exactly will happen, and why it is so necessary.

Medical detoxification, as the first step in drug and alcohol rehab, is one of the most important steps when treating an addiction.

Detox can rid the patient’s body of the drug, removing built-up toxins and substance residue from past addiction.

By ensuring that a patient’s withdrawal symptoms are comfortably taken care of, medical experts can safely and effectively remove the traces of the addicted substance from a patient’s body.

It is important to remember that detox is more than simply “quitting.”

Why Detox?

Although drug addiction is a chronic disease, those that actively use and abuse drugs do not take into account the severe consequences associated with chronic (long-term) use of such addictive substances.

Constant misuse can easily, and often does, lead to the building of tolerance and ultimately addiction or dependence. When someone decides to face their addiction and attempt to quit, the abstinence after long-term addiction can more than likely cause uncomfortable physical and psychological consequences.

These consequences are one of the main reasons that we strongly suggest people seek treatment first through a medical detoxification program. The uncomfortable side effects are referred to as withdrawals, and depending on the severity of past addiction, the client can vary from mild to severe.

Although all drugs are different, and thus, all drug addiction cases are different, there are a number of withdrawal symptoms common between drugs. The withdrawal phase commonly makes the patient exhibit flu-like symptoms, and common ones can include:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Sleep disorders
  • Aching muscles
  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose

This list of withdrawal symptoms can cause slight discomfort and can be little more than annoying to someone. Unfortunately, in the more severe cases of addiction such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opioids, the withdrawal symptoms can include seizures, hallucinations, and delirium tremens that can be fatal. It is important not to take risks when it comes to medical detox, so engaging in detox with a medical expert is the safest option for a patient.

To avoid the complications and slight inconvenience of going through professional medical detox, many people will attempt to self-detox by themselves by going “cold turkey.”

The term “cold turkey” is in reference to the immediate cessation of a drug as a way to detox. While it may sound quick, easy, and effective, going cold turkey should never be attempted and can very easily lead to severe withdrawal symptoms. The most deadly and severe withdrawal symptoms are often caused by quitting cold turkey, and the symptoms often push people to relapse and/or pick up their addiction again. For this reason, medically-supervised detox is the smartest and safest course of action when it comes to beginning your addiction treatment.

As the starting treatment process, detox is most effective when followed up by a form of drug therapy such as inpatient or outpatient treatment programs.

As soon as a patient’s body is cleaned through detox, it becomes much easier for the patient to interact in therapy sessions that treat the psychological and physical effects of addiction.

Treatment methods in substance abuse disorder treatment can include behavioral therapy, counseling, and both individual and group therapy.

Detox Duration

It can take several weeks or months for withdrawal symptoms to subside. The length of withdrawal, however, is going to vary based on several factors. Some of these factors include:

  • The severity of addiction
  • Duration of the addiction
  • Type of substance abused
  • Method of abuse
  • Family history
  • Genetic makeup
  • Co-occurring disorders
  • The amount of a substance used at one time
  • Medical conditions

Medications Used in Detox

There are several medications commonly used during detox to boost the comfort and overall happiness of a patient. Detox medications have a variety of potential, from treating withdrawal symptoms to acting as a substitute for a patient to slowly taper off of a certain substance. During detox, there are many medications that are commonly used to enhance the comfort of treatment for a patient. From treating withdrawals to replacing an abused substance to allow for tapering, medications are one of the best tools that treatment centers have to treat a patient during detox.

Medications that are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can be effective in treating some withdrawal symptoms while a patient is in detox, but there are no FDA approved drugs that can fully treat benzodiazepine or stimulant withdrawal. Fortunately, some medications can be used in benzo and stimulant withdrawal that can ease cravings and symptoms.

Medications used for opioid detox include:

  • Methadone
  • Suboxone
  • Antidepressants
  • Anti-anxiety medications

Medications used for alcohol detox include:

  • Naltrexone
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Disulfiram
  • Anti-nausea medications
  • Antidepressants
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Anticonvulsants

Medications used for stimulant detox include:

  • Antidepressants
  • Antipsychotics
  • Benzodiazepines

Medications used for sedative detox include:

  • Benzodiazepines
  • Melatonin


Commonly referred to as simply “hospital detox,” hospitalization is a common institutional approach to detox and treatment. In the event that someone is hospitalized, they will only have access to a certain area of the hospital or treatment center.

Contact with friends and family is very limited if granted at all. While in hospital detox, a patient will be restricted to the number of items available to them. Personal belongings, electronics, sharp objects, or anything that can be plugged into a wall are commonly restricted items in hospital detox.

Though it is important that a patient be as comfortable as possible during treatment, hospitalization takes a unique point of view on addiction treatment. Hospitalization ensures that a patient is not too comfortable or overconfident while recovering. The point of intentionally discomforting a patient is to act as negative reinforcement; the less comfortable you are in treatment, the more likely it is that you will not relapse into addiction again.

Hospitalization, like other forms of detox, may consist of the use of professionally-administered medications. The commonly used 12-step program excels in drug rehab and is even further boosted by the use of medications.

The Safety of Detox at Rehab Centers

Medical detox at treatment centers or hospitals is undoubtedly the best way to handle detox, and clients are provided the support and resources they need to endure withdrawal symptoms and to stay strong in their now-sober state. If there is a medical emergency, professional intervention will be available if you partake in medical detox in a center, and doctors and nurses provide 24-hour, around-the-clock supervision to make sure that your detox process is as safe and effective as possible.

Although it may seem like a cheaper, more convenient way to go about drug detox, at-home kits and cold turkey methods are highly ineffective and do not take into consideration the patient’s safety and well-being. By participating in treatment at a medical detox facility, a patient will be well-monitored by trained, expert professionals and will receive the best treatment possible.

Side Effects of Detox

The process of detox has the potential to be painful and dangerous. It highlights the reasoning behind medical detox and its significance in the continuum of care.

Detox that provides medical supervision gives the client a safe and comfortable environment that allows them to focus on the tough road ahead. While detox alleviates the worst symptoms, the client should still expect a rough path as the drugs or alcohol exits the body.

Some Symptoms are Unavoidable, and These Include:

  • Insomnia
  • Mood swings
  • Body aches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Nervousness or anxiety
  • Inability to concentrate

The Three-step Process of Detox

Medical detox generally follows a working, proven process common amongst detox centers. Although all cases are different, detox generally starts with an evaluation, eases into stabilization, and then finishes detox by entering treatment.


In the stage of evaluation, doctors will test you for the following:

  • How much and what substances are apparent in your body and to measure the concentration of the substance(s) to best determine the overall severity of their addiction
  • Dual-diagnosis or co-occurring mental and/or physical conditions and disorders
  • Your social life. To choose a program best suited to you personally, a doctor must consider your responsibilities outside of treatment. A patient with children and a full-time job would be much more obligated to partake in an outpatient program as opposed to an inpatient one.


In the stage of stabilization, you will be exposed to:

  • The resources (support, therapy) that you need need to most effectively treat your withdrawal symptoms
  • The many types of therapy and treatment you will encounter after the completion of detox
  • If necessary, the proper medications that treat your withdrawal symptoms and addiction

Entering Treatment

In the transitional process from detox into treatment, clients will:

  • Be given a general briefing about what to expect in treatment
  • Be given the additional supportive “push” they need to remain sober through treatment
  • Be provided their treatment plan, and what options are available to them before making a choice

Life After Detox

Detox is only the first portion in the continuum of care. Detox on its own is seldom reliable to promote long-term sobriety. While it gives an outlet to rid the drug from a client’s system, it does not equip the individual with the tools necessary to avoid triggers. Those struggling with addiction must also deal with the psychological aspect of it. It can be accomplished with counseling, support groups, residential treatment, or outpatient programs. An addiction specialist will help with the transition into the next level of care.

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