Oftentimes, detox is the first step in the process of recovering from an addiction. A quick online search shows slews of websites promising at-home detox methods, from “natural” remedies to the classic “cold turkey” approach. Although it is understandably tempting for a person to try to detox at home because it seems quick and inexpensive, it’s often not a safe approach.
Certain substances lead to more serious cases of physical dependence, and medical detox is always required for withdrawal from these substances. For example, medical detox is always needed to withdraw from benzodiazepines, alcohol, and opiates, due to the potential for life-threatening withdrawal symptoms and the high risk of relapse during detox. For certain substances, and for severe cases of addiction or people with co-occurring disorders, It is important to get medical oversight and social support during detox.
The Severity of Withdrawal Symptoms
Whether people stop using a drug or lower their dosage, they will experience withdrawal symptoms.
While withdrawal is inevitable, medical detox makes the process safer and more comfortable. It includes professional oversight from therapists and doctors throughout the process and the use of prescription medications to ease the most intense or dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
If people stop taking an addictive substance at home, they have none of this support, which makes relapse more likely when withdrawal symptoms get uncomfortable. In addition, with at-home detox, medical help is not immediately available should any complications occur.
For example, withdrawing from alcohol necessitates medical detox since certain withdrawal symptoms can even be life-threatening. General alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:
- Depression and anxiety
- Mood swings
- Nightmares, insomnia, and sleep changes
- Dilated pupils
- Clammy skin
- Rapid heart rate
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea or vomiting
- Tremors, shakiness, or physical weakness
If these appear as mild symptoms, they can be managed with over-the-counter medications and counseling to prevent relapse. However, in more extreme forms, this cluster of alcohol withdrawal symptoms can become a syndrome called delirium tremens.
Symptoms of delirium tremens include:
- Extreme agitation
- Hallucinations, either auditory or visual
- Severe confusion or delirium
Delirium tremens is a serious concern for people who have struggled with alcohol use disorder for a long time. However, with the help of prescription medications like benzodiazepines, as well as medical oversight during detox, this condition is preventable and manageable if it does occur. For people who attempt to detox from alcohol at home, however, this condition can be very dangerous.
Another example is opiate addiction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that from 1999 to 2014, the number of opioid medications sold in the US quadrupled, but there was not a change in the amount of pain that Americans report. There has, however, been a steep rise in the number of reported opioid addictions, overdoses, and overdose deaths. Statistically, 78 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, which includes overdoses on drugs like hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, and heroin.
Because of this increasing problem, it is very important to seek help to overcome opioid addiction, particularly to ease withdrawal symptoms and ensure a person makes it through the difficult detox period and on to the therapeutic portion of rehab. If a person attempts to detox at home, the physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms of opioid addiction often lead to relapse, which commonly results in overdose.
- Restlessness and anxiety
- Muscle aches
- Runny nose
- Tearing eyes
- Frequent yawning
- Nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps
- Rapid heartbeat
- High blood pressure
- Dilated pupils and vision problems
Although some of these, such as mild diarrhea or nausea, can be managed with over-the-counter medications, many of these symptoms can be dangerous if they are more serious and the person does not have medical oversight. Diarrhea can lead to dehydration, while high blood pressure can lead to heart attack or stroke. If a person’s body is dependent on opioid drugs, it is nearly impossible to quit these substances without help. Medical detox for opioids, however, may include medications like Suboxone, which can ease aches and pains associated with opiate withdrawal, as well as reduce cravings, since the medication contains buprenorphine, a partial opioid agonist.
Other drugs, like cocaine or methamphetamines, have no approved medications to help with detox, but it is still important for people who struggle with addictions to these drugs to seek medical detox and rehabilitation. Sometimes, medications are used off-label to assist in the withdrawal process, or medications or alternative therapies may be used to address specific withdrawal symptoms. Therapy in particular is very helpful in overcoming cravings and preventing relapse, which reduces the potential for overdosing on these drugs in the future.
Can Detoxing Alone Be Fatal?
Attempting to detox alone can be deadly for some people. When a person struggles with an addiction for a long time, it is very likely that the body has developed a dependence on the addictive substance. If the person stops ingesting this drug suddenly, withdrawal symptoms will set in, and some of the body’s systems may not function properly as a result. Alcohol use disorder in particular can cause this problem, reducing kidney and liver functions on top of making the individual feel ill. With opioid drugs, overdose is a common issue. Withdrawing from these drugs without help can lead to quick relapse, which often leads to overdose.
Fortunately, medical detox is a safe and effective method for overcoming physical dependence on a substance. Specific medications that are tapered over time can ease people off opiates or alcohol. If these medications are not available for an addictive substance, like cocaine or marijuana, other medications, like antidepressants and anti-nausea prescriptions, can help to ease the worst physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms.
While not every substance of abuse requires medical detox, it is always necessary for withdrawal from alcohol, opiates, and benzodiazepines. The necessity for medical detox should be determined on a case-by-case basis by medical professionals.
Complete Addiction Recovery
Medical oversight ensures that a person overcoming a physical addiction can manage withdrawal symptoms safely. This form of detox is also the first step in the larger process of rehabilitation. Detox by itself is not addiction treatment; it is only a method of getting an addictive substance out of the body.
Rehabilitation, whether inpatient or outpatient, includes talk and group therapy to help the person learn about the underlying causes of their addiction, form social bonds with others going through similar problems, and learn new coping strategies to deal with cravings or triggers for use in the future. Rehabilitation is a whole set of treatments for addiction beyond just the physical realm, and it has much greater success than detox alone. When a person attempts to detox at home, they lack the professional and social support of medical detox, which is a vital part of overcoming addiction.