Medical Detox from Drugs and Alcohol
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 through either inpatient or outpatient rehab to address the mental, social, and behavioral issues that go along with alcohol and drug abuse.1
When Should I Choose 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.
Medical Withdrawal Management
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 Symptoms of Withdrawal
Common withdrawal symptoms include, but are not limited to:1,4–5
- Increased anxiety.
- Fatigue (feeling tired or weak).
- 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
- Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there).
- Severe confusion.
- Delirium tremens (a severe form of alcohol withdrawal).
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:
- 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).
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What Is Involved in Medical Detox?
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
How Long Does Medical Detox Last?
In general, detox treatment lasts long enough to manage your withdrawal symptoms for as long as you have them.2 This will vary from person to person and depend on such factors as:1,6
- Which substance(s) you use.
- How long you have been using them.
- How severe your SUD is.
- Your overall physical and mental health.
- Whether or not you’ve been to detox before, what symptoms you had, and how severe they were.
Drug and Alcohol Detox Medicines
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 Medicines
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.
Benzodiazepine Detox 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 Detox Medicines
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.
Find Medical Detox Near Me
American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading provider of medical detox, with detox and rehab centers across the nation. If you’re ready to take the next step, call our free and confidential 24/7 detox hotline at to speak with one of our team members. If you would like to get started online, start the process by checking your insurance coverage instantly or texting our team.