Alcohol And Drug Detox: Process And Effects

Drug and alcohol detoxification is an essential aspect of addiction treatment for many people. The associated withdrawal symptoms can be unpleasant, but they are manageable with the guidance and support of your detox team. 

Alcohol And Drug Detox: Process And Effects

Detoxification is the process of removing drugs or alcohol from your body. On average, the process takes three to five days, but it can vary depending on the substance and history of use.

It is possible to detox on your own, but it is not always safe. Certain substances and health conditions can result in life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, which require monitoring. 

To help you better understand the detoxification process and how it fits into substance abuse treatment, our team has put together this brief guide.

What Is Detoxification?

When you introduce toxins into your body, they are gradually metabolized and eventually passed out of your system. 

With addictive substances, your body may reject the decreased concentration and eventual absence of drugs or alcohol because you have become dependent on their effects. 

Detoxification (detox) is the natural process of ridding your body of toxins. In drug and alcohol treatment, detox refers to the process of ridding your body of addictive substances.

Why Is Detox Necessary?

People who have become dependent on drugs or alcohol — formed a physical reliance on the substances — need to detox. 

This is necessary to ensure their body is clean of substances so they can move past the worst of withdrawal symptoms and focus on addiction treatment.

Physical Dependency

Physical dependency is one possible result of alcohol and drug use. 

In this case, your brain and body have made adjustments in their normal behaviors to account for the presence of illicit substances.

Without the influence of those same substances, you will experience negative physical side effects, known as withdrawal symptoms.

Nausea, irritability, fatigue, and body aches are a few common drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Chemical Dependency

Chemical dependency is one aspect of physical dependency that relates more closely to the changes in mental health that accompany physical dependency.

Any substance that has mood-altering capabilities or increases the concentration of dopamine or serotonin in your brain is more likely to cause chemical dependency.

As a result of these changes, your brain actively reduces its natural production of important hormones. During withdrawal, this can cause anxiety, depression, and even hallucinations. 

The Symptoms Of Detoxification

Your experience with detox treatment will depend on your medical history as well as your history of substance abuse. While many cases of detox are mild to moderate, symptoms can be volatile.

The symptoms of withdrawal can be influenced by the kind of substance(s) used, how long they have been used, and the presence of co-occurring conditions. 

Before attempting detox you should always meet with a qualified healthcare provider to assess your personal risk. Their medical advice should be the basis for the detox program you choose.

Common Detoxification Symptoms

Most people will only experience mild to moderate detoxification symptoms. While they may not be life-threatening, they also aren’t pleasant. 

Common withdrawal symptoms include: 

  • nausea 
  • vomiting
  • insomnia
  • fatigue
  • vivid nightmares
  • irritability
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • cravings
  • body aches

In a supervised detox setting, your treatment team can monitor your progress, provide comfort, and call for help if your symptoms become more serious. 

Dangerous Detoxification Symptoms

If you have a long-term addiction, are addicted to a more volatile substance, or have underlying health conditions, you could be more prone to severe withdrawal symptoms. 

These may include dramatic changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and/or respiration rate. 

To ensure that you are able to get through the detox process safely, your treatment provider will suggest medical supervision with on-site staff who are able to treat your symptoms as they occur. 

Your treatment provider may also suggest a drug taper or medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to reduce the risk of life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. 

Drug And Alcohol Detox Program Options

There are a variety of different detox programs that you can choose from based on your individual needs and your history of drug and alcohol abuse.

To make the best choice for your health and safety, discuss the treatment process with a qualified healthcare professional. 

Outpatient Detox Programs

Outpatient detox programs are usually reserved for long-term detoxification using a drug taper or medication-assisted treatment.

Depending on your substance use, this approach to detoxification can take anywhere from several weeks to several months. 

If you are in an outpatient treatment program where you receive daily medication to manage withdrawal, you will need to visit the associated clinic most days until you reach stabilization.

Supervised Detox Programs

A supervised detox program is an inpatient option that provides a secure space for you to go through withdrawal. These are generally short-term programs lasting 3-7 days.

In a supervised detox program, there are staff present 24/7, but they do not necessarily have anything but the most basic medical training. 

If your withdrawal symptoms progress to a point where your safety is in question, staff are prepared to call emergency medical services. 

Medical Detox Programs

Medical detox programs are another short-term inpatient treatment option, but these programs are better-suited to people who may experience more volatile symptoms. 

If you are detoxing from alcohol, benzodiazepines, or opioids, choosing a medical detox program may be the safest choice.

These programs are designed to offer ongoing medical care to treat withdrawal symptoms. They can also administer a taper or medication-assisted treatment in the initial days of your detox. 

Medication-assisted treatment for an opioid or alcohol use disorder may include the use of:

  • acamprosate
  • buprenorphine
  • disulfiram
  • methadone
  • naltrexone

Social Detox Programs

Social detox programs are the most relaxed version of supervised detoxification. These programs are usually offered as part of a larger residential rehab program. 

During social detox, you will be free to interact with others and take part in addiction therapy if you’re physically able. These detox programs are only suggested for relatively mild withdrawal. 

Is Drug Tapering The Same As Detox?

Drug tapering and detoxification are not the same, but drug tapering can be a crucial tool for supporting safe detoxification. 

Certain drugs, like opioids and benzodiazepines, can cause potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms if you attempt to quit “cold turkey.”

A drug taper is used to slowly reduce the amount of the drug your body is exposed to each day to ensure that you can eventually quit safely. 

Tapering Off Opiates

If you stop using opiates without a taper, you may experience an increased risk of serious withdrawal symptoms, including suicidal tendencies. 

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) urges practitioners to gradually taper clients off opiates by decreasing their daily dose by no more than 10-25% every two to four weeks. 

Tapering Off Benzodiazepines

Quitting benzodiazepines without a taper can lead to dangerous changes in your heart rate and psychological health. 

For people who have abused benzodiazepines, it is important to gradually decrease the daily dose over a period of several months. The exact percentages and intervals will depend on the case. 

FAQs For Drug And Alcohol Detoxification

Detoxification is a complicated process that may cause you some anxiety. The science behind detoxification and withdrawal may be well-understood, but you’re still going to have questions.

These are some of the most frequently asked questions regarding detoxification, withdrawal, and substance abuse treatment.  

Do I Need A Referral From My Doctor To Enroll In A Detox Program?

You may need a referral from your primary care physician if you are relying on your private health insurance to cover the cost of your detox program.

Even if a referral is not required, it may still be beneficial to discuss your decision with a doctor who can provide necessary medical advice.

How Long Is The Average Detox Program?

The average detox program, excluding long-term drug tapers and medication-assisted treatment, is about one week. 

Most cases of withdrawal only last three to five days in situations where it is safe to quit without a taper. 

What Accommodations Will My Detox Center Provide During My Stay?

The accommodations provided by your detox center will vary depending on the program that you choose. 

For example, social detox programs often include shared accommodations in a comfortable residence, whereas medical detox may offer more private accommodations in a clinical setting. 

What Am I Allowed To Bring To A Detox Center?

Every inpatient detox program will have its own packing list with suggestions for what to bring as well as a list of what you cannot bring into the facility. 

These packing lists are unique to each rehab center, but you can generally assume that anything associated with substance abuse and anything that can be used as a weapon will not be allowed.

Are The Staff At Detox Centers Trained Healthcare Professionals?

The training of your staff will depend on the level of care that your detox program provides. 

Staff at a social or supervised detox center do not usually have medical training. In a medical detox program, there should always be at least one medical professional on-site at all times. 

You can learn more about the specific qualifications of your staff and the ratio of trained staff to patients by contacting your preferred detox program. 

What Accreditations Should I Look For In A Detox Program?

Your detox program’s accreditations are an important indicator of the quality of care the staff are able to offer. 

The Commission on Accreditation of Rehab Facilities (CARF), the Joint Commission, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) are the most important accrediting organizations.

In addition to these accreditations, you should also review the training and professional degrees of on-site staff to understand the level of care provided. 

Addiction Treatment After Alcohol And Drug Detoxification

You can start an addiction treatment program concurrently with detox in some cases, but the core treatment plan typically follows detoxification. 

Depending on your needs and initial evaluation, you may find the resources you need through the same treatment facility, or you may need to work with an associated treatment center. 

In either case, pursuing ongoing addiction treatment, such as inpatient treatment or outpatient treatment, will help you avoid relapse and increase the chance that you will achieve long-term recovery. Learn about the detoxification process, different kinds of detox programs, and the role of detox in drug and alcohol addiction treatment. 

Find Substance Use Treatment Today

If you or a loved one is ready to start treatment for a substance use disorder, call our helpline today. We can discuss your current needs and help you to find the best possible match. 

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