Medical detox is treatment to get a person safely through withdrawal from drugs or alcohol. Withdrawal (with-DRAW-uhl) refers to the uncomfortable or life-threatening symptoms that happen after you stop taking a drug. Medical detox uses medicines and other care to help the body get rid of the substance (drug or alcohol). This gives the body a chance to recover before starting substance use treatment or rehab. Medical detox is just the first step in overcoming a substance use problem.
Medical detox can ease some of the physical pain and discomfort of withdrawal. In some cases, medical detox prevents serious problems that can happen during withdrawal from alcohol, opiates, and sedatives. Examples of sedatives are Xanax® and Valium®.
Medical detox steps
- Evaluate. The doctor will find out what kind of medical detox you need, if any. The doctor will give you an exam and check your temperature, blood pressure, and pulse. The doctor will ask questions to understand what substance you took and what other health problems you have. The doctor may also do a urine test or blood test to find out what substance is in your body.
- Stabilize. The doctor will give you medicine or other care to help you through withdrawal. Sometimes the hospital staff will not give you medicine but will watch to make sure you are safe and don’t have problems during withdrawal.
- Prepare for substance use treatment. The doctor or hospital will give you information about treatment for substance use. They may also give you a referral to a treatment program. Treatment is important because detox does not stop the addiction. It just helps you get through withdrawal.
Medical detox treatments depend on the situation and the substance.
- Alcohol. In some cases, withdrawal from alcohol can cause seizures, fever, high blood pressure, and other problems. It can be life-threatening. If the doctor decides you need to medical detox for alcohol, you may get benzodiazepines or other medicines to prevent delirium tremens (DTs) and seizures. You must be in a doctor’s care for this treatment because these medicines can be dangerous and addictive if they are used in the wrong way.
- Opioids. Withdrawal from opioids is not life-threatening, but it can cause a lot of discomfort. A doctor will sometimes give a medicine like methadone or buprenorphine to help ease a person off of opioids and get through withdrawal.
- Sedatives. Withdrawal from medicines like barbiturates and benzodiazepines can be dangerous. When medical detox is needed, the doctor may try to take you off the drug slowly. The doctor may use the same sedative you took, or a different one. The doctor will also watch to make sure your heart and breathing are okay during detox.
- Stimulants. Drugs like cocaine and meth can be dangerous for your heart, especially if they were used with alcohol. There are no medicines for withdrawal, but the doctor may want to watch you to make sure you stay safe during withdrawal.
- Benzodiazepines are used to help with alcohol withdrawal. But they can be dangerous if you get too much, especially if you still have alcohol in your system. These medicines are also addictive, so it is important to use it only under the care of a doctor.
- Methadone and buprenorphine are used to help a person through opioid withdrawal. These medicines are also opioids, and come with some of the risks of opioid overdose, including slowed breathing and heart problems. Because of this, buprenorphine is a bit safer than methadone because it is harder to overdose on it. Both medicines come with some risk of addiction. Like any opioid, these medicines can cause side effects like sweating, constipation, and sexual problems. People with asthma or other breathing problems should not take methadone. Side effects from buprenorphine are typically milder than those from methadone.
What are the benefits? In most cases, withdrawal from a substance is not life-threatening and can be treated without medicine. But withdrawal from some substances, especially alcohol and sedatives, can be life-threatening. In these cases, medical detox can save your life.
Medical detox can also ease the suffering of detox and prepare you for substance use treatment and recovery.
Talk to your doctor about how medical detox may be able to help you get through your withdrawal safely when you are ready to quit. If you have had severe withdrawal in the past, your doctor may recommend an inpatient detox program. In a program like this, you stay at a care center for up to a week while you are going through detox and withdrawal.
Medical detox varies depending on your needs. Your doctor will work with addiction specialists to find a treatment that works for you. Your doctor may give you medicine to take at home while you are going through withdrawal. Or, you may come to a program or clinic during the day to get care while you are going through withdrawal. In most cases, you will take the medicine as a pill or liquid.
In some cases, your doctor may recommend that you stay at the hospital or in a detox center while you go through withdrawal.
Medical detox is only the first step in beating addiction. Your body and mind will still crave the alcohol or drugs even after detox. Your doctor and the addiction specialist will help you make a plan that works for you. Some options for recovery include:
- Individual therapy or group therapy for substance use, a mental health diagnosis, or both
- 12-Step programs
- Inpatient rehab
- Treatment with medication (for example, methadone for opioid addiction)
- Vitamins and diet changes to help you get the right nutrition to support recovery
Recovery takes time and support. It works best when you have a support system with people who can take this journey with you. Set up your life so it is easier to avoid drugs and alcohol. This might mean changing your daily routines and the people you see. It’s not always easy to create a new life. At first, you might feel lost, sad, and afraid. Use your support system to help you through these times so you can reach your goals for getting sober.