- Safely and comfortably clearing the body completely of the unwanted substance.
- Managing symptoms of acute withdrawal.
- Encouraging ongoing substance use disorder treatment for the detoxing individual.
- Hypnotic/sedative drugs like barbiturates and benzodiazepines.
- Opioids like heroin, morphine, and prescription pain medication.
For other drugs associated with a less dangerous or difficult withdrawal syndrome, detox might not require close medical management. For these substances, it might be adequately conducted in the social detox setting or foregone completely as the individual enrolls in some other form of substance abuse treatment.
Detox is separated into two types:
Dependency means that the body has adapted to persistently elevated levels of a substance in such as way that the individual begins to feel like they must take the drug in order to simply feel as if they are functioning normally. When the drug is withdrawn, dependent individuals will often experience a host of mental and physical health symptoms that are uncomfortable and potentially dangerous.
- Medically assisted (or medically supervised) detox – This type of treatment is done under the care of medical and mental health professionals. The observation is helpful to increase safety and comfort levels for people undergoing the painful symptoms and potential medical complications that may result from ending substance use. At times, medications can be administered to ease the process and reduce the strong cravings for the substance that typically are experienced at this point.
- Clinically managed (“social”) detox – This style is a short-term, non-medical strategy for someone wanting to end substance use. Some social detox settings will only provide a room for detox to take place while others will provide more hands-on treatment approaches including peer encouragement and professional support throughout the detox duration.
Detox is a recommended initial step of treatment for a wide range of addicted individuals. Some form of detox is appropriate for anyone who has developed a substance dependency.
There is no set timeframe for detox to be completed. For some, the process will only take hours or days. For others, it may take weeks to completely clear the body of the drug. Factors that dictate the length of detox include:
Medically-assisted detox is most appropriate for people with substance dependencies involving:
Discover answers to common questions about detox for drug abuse and addiction.
Remember, however, that while there may be relatively few expected medical dangers, some unexpected dangers may arise. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there are several medical complications that can occur during detox. An individual may experience nausea and vomiting. Particularly in scenarios where an altered level of consciousness is a factor, it’s possible they may aspirate on their vomit, which can be fatal. Add that to the ever-present risk of relapse, which may be more likely when you’re trying to get clean on your own, and at-home detox may seem like a less attractive option. Due to the uncomfortable nature of withdrawal symptoms, it’s very common for addicted individuals to return to drug or alcohol use when their withdrawal symptoms start to spike. 4 Drug cravings can be immensely difficult to resist when withdrawal feels too uncomfortable to handle. Getting professional support can make a big difference in preventing relapse and making it to the next step of treatment.
- Benzodiazepines/barbiturates. In some cases (for example, if you’re abusing a benzo with a short half-life such as Xanax), you may be switched to another that has a longer half-life (such as Librium or Valium) or to the barbiturate, phenobarbital. This will limit the likelihood of dangerous withdrawal effects and increase your comfort. The substance will then be slowly tapered until your body is clear of any sedatives.
- Sedating antidepressants, such as trazodone.
If you don’t want any medical intervention, you don’t necessarily have to detox at home. You can do a natural process with the therapeutic support of professionals by going through “social detox” in a structured residential environment. 3 This can be a great way to ensure that you have consistent support and that you are set up with some form of therapy (whether inpatient or outpatient) once you’ve completed the process.
At-home detox should only be performed after a doctor or medical professional has approved the process. 3 Someone suffering from a drug or alcohol addiction should never decide to simply try it on their own without medical supervision. Doing so could have serious health repercussions and could be fatal in some situations. 2,3
You may also not be prepared for the intensity of the symptoms which can extend into both your physical and mental health. Beyond nausea and vomiting, withdrawal can precipitate potentially life-threatening conditions, such as cardiovascular problems, delirium tremens, and seizures. 3,4 For example, as many as 30% of people detoxing without treatment from sedatives will have a grand mal seizure. 4 Among those using substances with potentially lethal withdrawal syndromes, there is no way to unequivocally predict who will be severely adversely affected.
- The type or types of substances you use regularly and whether you are currently intoxicated.
- The frequency, dose, and duration of your use.
- Any preexisting and concurrent mental health symptoms.
- Your physical health/medical history.
- Previous withdrawal and detox attempts.
- How much support you have at home.
The detox process for other substances may be aided with medications that address the secondary symptoms of withdrawal, like nausea or sleeping problems, with other prescription or over-the-counter medications. 3
- Benzodiazepines/barbiturates—These are the primary treatment for alcohol withdrawal. The initial effective dose will be tapered over time to reduce the risk of seizures and delirium tremens.
- Anticonvulsants, such as Neurontin.
- Antipsychotics such as Haldol.
- Methadone or buprenorphine. As opioid agonist medications, these medically presribed treatment drugs are given in controlled doses to ease cravings and minimize withdrawal distress associated with quitting heroin or prescription painkillers.
- Clonidine. More often used in inpatient settings, this medication will only treat certain detox symptoms like high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat.
While you may think it's cheaper and easier to detox at home, the truth is that it's very dangerous and not recommended by professionals.