Medical Detox

Quitting drugs or alcohol is a challenging decision in and of itself, but what about withdrawals? Medical detox is an effective option to assist you and your loved one during the withdrawal process while ensuring your safety and promoting your overall success in your addiction recovery journey.

What Is a Medical Detox?

The medical detox process, or medical detoxification, is an important step in the addiction treatment process. The overall goal of any alcohol or drug detox program is to provide stabilization to the recovering addict as their body continues to eliminate any remaining drugs or alcohol from their systems.

During drug or alcohol detox, clinicians or other licensed medical professionals will monitor your vitals. Sometimes, medication can be prescribed to wean the patient off the drugs they were taking—also known as tapering.

Detox is offered at both the inpatient and outpatient levels. Medical detox is provided at hospitals, rehab treatment centers, as well as standalone detox facilities. The option that is best for you will often depend on your level of addiction and the risk of your withdrawal symptoms.

When Is a Medical Detox Necessary?

Medical detox can be an important step in the substance abuse recovery process. There are a few different circumstances that could make a medical detox the right choice for yourself or a loved one.

Medical detox can provide the following benefits:

  • Ensure a safe detoxification process in cases with dangerous withdrawal symptoms
  • Mitigate uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that could lead to relapse
  • Provide medical support for those with additional health issues or co-occurring disorders

Life-Threatening Withdrawal Side Effects

Detox treatment is highly recommended for individuals that are quitting a drug or alcohol addiction and are at risk for experiencing severe or dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

The following substances present the highest risk for dangerous withdrawals:

While withdrawal symptoms can be uncomfortable in many instances, the above-listed substances can actually cause life-threatening side effects without medical intervention. For instance, alcohol withdrawal can cause side effects known as Delirium tremens (DTs), which can include hallucinations, sudden high blood pressure, seizures, and coma. Under medical supervision, however, these symptoms can be mitigated to ensure your safety.

Relapse Prevention

While some withdrawals may not be life-threatening, the side effects can still be extremely uncomfortable for the patient. Additionally, patients may experience strong cravings as one of their withdrawal side effects.

Both the discomfort and the cravings can encourage the individual to return to substance abuse to avoid these sensations. But with medical detox, healthcare providers can help mitigate your discomfort through tapering or other medications.

Co-Occurring Disorders

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) asserts that overall care for individuals with other medical conditions (physical or mental health) will not differ much from any other patient diagnosed with substance use disorder.

However, co-occurring disorders may require special consideration of medications used during medical detox, as well as the presentation of other symptoms.

If you or your loved one have co-occurring disorders or any additional health concerns, medical detox can ensure that the withdrawal process does not exacerbate any of your other symptoms.

What to Expect During a Medical Detox

Now that you might be considering medical detox, you may be wondering what you or your loved one can expect during the process.

Drugs Used During a Medical Detox

Sometimes medications will be used during medical detox to help mitigate the negative symptoms associated with withdrawal.

Some of the most common prescriptions used include:

  • Benzodiazepines
  • Methadone
  • Buprenorphine
  • Suboxone
  • Naltrexone

Also known as Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), these medications are used both to combat the effects of withdrawal and to help patients avoid relapse. Some of these medications are intended for use on a very short-term basis, while others may be part of your overall substance abuse treatment plan and be used even after medical detox has been completed.

Locations Where a Medical Detox is Performed

Medical detox can be performed at a number of treatment facilities. Hospitals, inpatient rehab centers, outpatient rehab, and standalone facilities can all perform the services required for medical detox.

The type of facility where you seek your medical detox may depend on your specific treatment plan (i.e. if you are also seeking a rehab program), as well as the severity of your addiction and the level of risk that comes with your withdrawal symptoms.

Inpatient Detox

Inpatient medical detox services are recommended for individuals with more severe addiction or other serious health issues. Inpatient detox requires the patient to check into and stay at a treatment facility during the entire detoxification process. During their stay, medical professionals can monitor their vitals and provide adjustments to medication or treatment as needed.

Patients at inpatient facilities also have 24/7 access to life support services which may be necessary for those recovering from addiction to benzodiazepines or alcohol.

Outpatient Detox

Outpatient detox is provided to patients with mild to moderate addictions. These patients can visit a detox treatment facility for medical care and support, as well as medication adjustments, but may not require around-the-clock care.

Recovering addicts in outpatient facilities receive the same quality of care as those in inpatient detox but don’t require the same level of care as more at-risk patients.

Is Detoxing Safe?

Medical detox is not completely risk-free but is far and above the safest option when recovering from alcohol or drug addiction.

Detoxification occurs when the body begins eliminating a substance from its system. As the brain stops receiving this substance, it may begin to overcompensate—causing a vast range of symptoms, from a runny nose to seizures.

The withdrawal symptoms that a person will experience depend on factors such as level of addiction, type of substance(s) abused, and even personal medical history. Some substances (such as alcohol or benzodiazepines) are also known for their potentially life-threatening side effects. Therefore, self-detox or “quitting cold turkey” is NOT considered safe in many cases.

Medical detox itself is overall a very safe process. However, depending on the severity of addiction and the type of substance that was abused, the individual may experience some dangerous withdrawal symptoms. During medical detox, patients have access to a team of clinicians as well as (when necessary) around-the-clock care and access to life support to mitigate these potentially dangerous side effects.

Steps to a Medical Detox

The medical detox process can be broken down into a few stages.

These stages include:

  1. Assessment
  2. Withdrawals
  3. Medication
  4. Transition

Usually, medical detox begins with an assessment of your overall medical history and current needs. Next, the patient will begin to experience symptoms of withdrawal. These symptoms can vary depending on the substance you were using, how long you used it, and other unique health factors.

However, often patients will receive medication treatment to help minimize these withdrawal side effects and ensure their safety. As you progress through the withdrawal phase, you will receive ongoing medical care and support. Once complete, you may receive a referral for a rehab center (inpatient or outpatient) depending on your specific treatment plan.

How Long Does a Medical Detox Take?

Medical detox programs typically run for between 3 to 7 days. However, overall detoxification can vary depending on several individual factors.

These factors include:

  • Type of substance(s) abused
  • Length of abuse
  • Quantity consumed
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Medical history
  • Presence of additional health issues (i.e. co-occurring disorders)

The medical detox process is designed to mitigate any dangerous symptoms of withdrawal and make the initial process more comfortable for the person in recovery. Once medical detox is completed, the patient may still experience some cravings. In many cases, some form of continued addiction treatment program is recommended, such as inpatient or outpatient rehab.

What Happens After a Medical Detox?

After medical detox, the individual should remain focused on their overall addiction recovery. While detox is an important part of the process, it isn’t the main issue that needs attention.

Many individuals go from detox to a rehab program. There are a variety of treatment options, including both inpatient and outpatient options. If you experienced medical detox at an inpatient facility, then after your detox is complete you may begin to incorporate additional therapy and activities into your daily rehab schedule.

Those in outpatient care may continue to seek therapy and work with support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) to strengthen decision-making and continue to avoid alcohol or drug use.

Find a Medical Detox Facility Near You

If you or your loved one are ready to take the first step in your recovery journey, we can help you find a medical detox center near you. Take a look at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) facility locator at this link.

Frequently Asked Questions About Medical Detox

Does insurance cover medical detox?

In many cases, insurance (including Medicare) provides partial or full coverage of medical detox for alcohol or drug addiction. Ideally, you will want to speak with your individual insurance provider to see what type of coverage they offer for medical detox programs.

What’s the best process to find a medical detox center?

You can find a medical detox center by speaking to your doctor or similar healthcare provider, by calling addiction hotlines, or by visiting the rehab center locator hosted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Does medical detox treat addiction?

No; medical detox is only one facet of what is needed to treat addiction. While medical detox is important in helping the individual safely get the substance out of their bodies, the real work happens after detox is complete.

Detox doesn’t solve the problem of alcohol or drug addiction nor does it cure any of the reasons behind why the addiction took place.

Patients are far more successful in their recovery when they invest in some time of program after detox is completed, from inpatient rehab to support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Is detox a sign of weakness?

Not whatsoever. In fact, detox without medical intervention (i.e. “quitting cold turkey”) can be extremely dangerous.

Seeking medical supervision as your body eliminates any substances from your system can make a huge difference in your overall success. Medical detox can provide the support you need to avoid relapse during the most uncomfortable parts of withdrawals, and provide you with the medical supervision you need to stay safe throughout the process.

What's the best process to find a medical detox center?

You can find a medical detox center by speaking to your doctor or similar healthcare provider, by calling addiction hotlines, or by visiting the rehab center locator hosted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Can you quit drugs or alcohol cold turkey?

In some instances, it may be safe to quit using a substance without medical intervention, but that is best determined by a doctor or medical professional.

In some cases, substances (such as benzodiazepines or alcohol) can cause life-threatening side effects during the withdrawal phase. These dangerous effects may also not occur right away, so they can catch you or your loved one off-guard.

It is best to speak with a doctor or other healthcare provider about your substance abuse and let them determine whether it is safe for you to discontinue use without medical supervision.

Reviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified in addiction medicine by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine (AOAAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of Addiction Guide and ensures the quality of our website’s content and messaging.

Written by:

Content Manager

Jessica Miller is a USF graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in English. She has written professionally for over a decade, from HR scripts and employee training to business marketing and company branding. In addition to writing, Jessica spent time in the healthcare sector (HR) and as a high school teacher. She has personally experienced the pitfalls of addiction and is delighted to bring her knowledge and writing skills together to support our mission. Jessica lives in St. Petersburg, FL with her husband and two dogs.

6 references
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  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, September 3). Treatment approaches for drug addiction drugfacts. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/treatment-approaches-drug-addiction

  3. Publications and Digital Products. TIP 45: Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment | SAMHSA Publications and Digital Products. (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2022, from https://store.samhsa.gov/product/TIP-45-Detoxification-and-Substance-Abuse-Treatment/SMA15-4131

  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, June 3). Types of treatment programs. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved February 15, 2022, from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/drug-addiction-treatment-in-united-states/types-treatment-programs

  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, September 18). Principles of effective treatment. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved February 15, 2022, from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/principles-effective-treatment

  6. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (1970, January 1). 5 co-occurring medical and psychiatric conditions. Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment [Internet]. Retrieved February 15, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64105/

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