Medical Detox

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medical-detoxQuitting drugs or alcohol can be very difficult for addicts. For some, it takes years to begin down the road to recovery. In most cases though, simply wanting to quit and avoiding use of drugs or alcohol isn’t enough.

For people addicted to certain drugs, as well as people who have been using drugs and alcohol for a prolonged period of time, simply quitting cold turkey isn’t safe. For these people, medical detox is often essential.

What is Medical Detox?

Medical detox is designed to help addicts address the physical aspect of their addiction. With the help of medications and constant medical supervision, patients in a detox facility or inpatient rehabilitation center are able to be weaned off the addictive substance in a slow, safe and comfortable manner.

Medical detox is always recommended when physical withdrawal symptoms are present or likely to be present. Those who suffer from alcoholism, heroin addiction, prescription opiate addiction, and prescription sedative addiction are at high risk for developing uncomfortable, and even life-threatening, withdrawal symptoms. While stimulant drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine do not respond particularly well to medication, some drugs may be administered to help patients sleep and stabilize prior to rehab.

What are the Phases of Medical Detox?

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, detox programs should consist of three separate yet integrated stages: evaluation, stabilization, and consultation.

Evaluation: During the first stage, a range of physical and mental tests are carried out to make sure the patient is ready to receive medical support. Typical tests include blood tests for currently circulating substances and psychological tests for co-occurring mental health disorders.

Stabilization: Once the patient has been evaluated physically and mentally, the next stage of treatment can begin. Stabilizing the patient normally involves medication treatment, especially when physical withdrawal symptoms are present. The medication process serves two purposes, not just helping to promote abstinence but also helping to alleviate potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

Consultation: Once the patient is stable and the most severe withdrawal symptoms have been dealt with successfully, therapists will educate them about rehab and guide them into further treatment.

Detox facilities keep doctors on-staff and appropriate treatments available to make sure patients can safely manage the stages of withdrawal.

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What Type of Detox Programs Exist?

The purpose of detox is to help an individual overcome the physical hold that drugs and alcohol have on them. This is particularly important for addicts that have been using for years, as well as those who have used heavily for a shorter period of time. Detox is often a process that takes a handful of days to a week or more. During this time, patients are closely monitored and given the proper treatment to make sure their withdrawal symptoms do not lead to more serious health complications.supervised-detox

Typically, facilities specialize in one or a few specific types of detox protocols. One of the main reasons people seek detox help is to avoid withdrawal symptoms and get the medical help they need to remain safe while they come off drugs and alcohol.

Common Withdrawal Symptoms
  • Alcohol withdrawal can result in headaches, nausea, hallucinations, sweating, anxiety, seizures, mood disturbances and physical tremors.
  • Opioid withdrawal symptoms include nausea, pain, anxiety, shallow breathing, vomiting and fever.
  • Stimulant withdrawal may results in depression, general anxiety, difficultly sleeping, nightmares, irritability and extreme fatigue.

Treatment Medication Options

During medical detox, proper pharmacology is an important part of the equation. By administering the right drugs, most people find the symptoms of quitting are eased.

In some cases, maintenance drugs are even beneficial after detox to help patients stay clean as they enter inpatient, intensive outpatient treatment or general outpatient programs and go through other forms of therapy according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH).

Medications used for medical detox include: 

  • Suboxone can help treat addiction to narcotic pain relievers while also reducing pain itself.
  • Methadone is used to treat narcotic drug addiction and manage pain.
  • Antabuse can help curtail alcohol use by creating an unpleasant feeling when a user drinks.
  • Naltrexone is designed to help prevent alcoholic relapse. It is often given after detox as well.
  • Neurontin controls nerve pain and reduces the risk of seizure when an individual has stopped using drugs or alcohol.
  • Bupropion is designed to help reduce cravings for tobacco products. It may also be used to treat seasonal effective disorder in some.

Benefits of Detox

When conducted in a residential treatment facility, detox can allow a recovering addict to get through the first stages of battling addiction in a safe place. This can help many people avoid relapse, especially when maintenance drugs are used during detox and after leaving the facility.

Proper detoxification may also allow people to seek additional help in the form of inpatient or outpatient care that they would not have been able to get on their own.


  1. What is Substance Abuse Treatment? [PDF]. (2004). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  2. Abuse, N. I. (n.d.). Principles of Effective Treatment. Retrieved August 30, 2016, from

Last updated on June 21st, 2017 at 05:30 pm

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