Detox from Drugs and Alcohol: The Facts

Detoxing from drugs or alcohol is the first real step a person must take to fight addiction or alcoholism. However, detox can also be the most confusing step because of a significant volume of misinformation concerning the subject. This is evidenced by inaccurate portrayals of addicts undergoing detox in movies and on television. The reality is that detoxing from drugs isn’t as glamorous or as dangerous as directors often make it seem. The truth more likely lies somewhere in between, requiring an understanding of exactly what detox is, why it is needed and how the process works in order to make treatment for addiction and drug detox services more effective and motivate those who need help to reach out for it immediately.

Detox is the process of ridding the body of foreign substances that a person has become physically dependent upon. This happens when a drug or alcohol is used consistently over time. With repeated use the body builds up a tolerance to these substances, requiring the addict to use more and more in order to feel the same effects; i.e.: to get high. This increase in amount and frequency eventually leads to physical dependence, where the body cannot operate as normal without the substance in the system. When the drug is then suddenly ceased, the brain and central nervous system go through a dramatic process in order to correct for the absence of the substance. This process is known as detox and can lead to uncomfortable symptoms that may require observation or treatment in a medical setting. In fact, some drugs like alcohol and benzodiazepines can pose life-threatening complications during detox. These complications are caused by Acute Withdrawal Syndrome – the scientific name for the symptoms experienced when users detox and withdraw from illicit drugs or alcohol.

When a person enters a medical detox facility they should expect to receive care that is focused on more than just immediate cessation of drug use. There are three components to most detox programs, according to the entry for Drug Detoxification in Wikipedia:

“*Evaluation: Upon beginning drug detoxification, a patient is first tested to see which specific substances are presently circulating in their bloodstream and the amount.

*Stabilization: The patient is guided through the process of detoxification. This may be done with or without the use of medications. . . Also part of stabilization is explaining to the patient what to expect during treatment and the recovery process.

*Guiding Patient into Treatment: The last step of the detoxification process is to ready the patient for the actual recovery process. As drug detoxification only deals with the physical dependency and addiction to drugs, it does not address the psychological aspects of drug addiction. This stage entails obtaining agreement from the patient to complete the process by enrolling in a drug rehabilitation program.” (1)

While this process is generally the same for each patient, the specifics are as individual as the patient. Some addicts may need immediate therapies for underlying conditions such as bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and other mental and physical health issues that may need to be addressed urgently as part of the stabilization process. Additionally, some addicts may benefit from family and friends visiting and supporting them during the detox process, while for others this could be detrimental. For this reason each person entering a detox program will in most cases have a highly individualized treatment plan developed for them before they go on to the next stage of treatment by entering an inpatient treatment program or outpatient rehab center.

In most cases the risks associated with detox amount to nothing more than a few days of discomfort, but for some the process can be painful and prolonged. Detox programs address this by observing the individual in a medical setting and providing medications and therapies to make them more comfortable when possible. Nevertheless, there are certain risks involved when a person detoxes from drugs or alcohol. In the case of alcohol detox the symptoms are sometimes severe and require medical intervention:

“*Autonomic hyperactivity (e.g., sweating or pulse rate greater than 100 beats per minute)
*Increased hand tremor
*Nausea or vomiting
*Transient visual, tactile, or auditory hallucination s or illusions
*Psychomotor agitation
*Grand mal seizures” (2)

Other drugs may pose very few symptoms of acute withdrawal – especially if the addict had not been using heavily or for a long period of time. Detox from drugs like marijuana, hash, and mushrooms might offer little more than annoyances in the way of physical symptoms, while detox from opiates is somewhat more severe. According to Medline Plus;

“Opioid withdrawal reactions are very uncomfortable but are not life threatening. Symptoms usually start within 12 hours of last heroin usage and within 30 hours of last methadone exposure.

Early symptoms of withdrawal include: Agitation, anxiety, muscle aches, increased tearing, insomnia, runny nose, sweating, yawning.

Late symptoms of withdrawal include: Abdominal cramping, diarrhea, dilated pupils, goose bumps, nausea, vomiting.” (3)

However, these symptoms of detox and acute withdrawal syndrome are only generalities. Detox is different for everyone. Some people might have little to no symptoms at all and feel well enough after only a few days. Others might feel moderate symptoms and be uncomfortable, while long term heavy drug or alcohol users may experience painful and – rarely – fatal symptoms. Because of this unpredictability from one person to the next, detoxing from drugs should always be done in a facility that is medically equipped to appropriately deal with these issues and keep the patient as comfortable and safe as possible.

It may help some people to know that detox can really be looked at as the body and mind “waking up” after being lulled into a dangerous type of sleep by prolonged drug or alcohol use. This is caused by

“. . .the hyper-excitability of the central nervous system during the alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Homocysteine levels which are elevated during chronic drinking increase even further during the withdrawal state and may result in excito-neurotoxicity. Alterations in ECG, in particular an increase in QT interval, and EEG abnormalities may occur during early withdrawal.” (4)

This might seem like a lot of senseless medical jargon, but what it means is that when receptors in the brain are inactive for long periods of time due to alcoholism or drug addiction, abrupt cessation of drug use causes these receptors and neurotransmitters to become highly excited and begin operating at an intense pace, often misfiring and sending confusing signals that the patient feels in the form of unpleasant symptoms.

In simple terms, detox is the process of awakening the body and central nervous system and restoring it to a state of normalcy. While this stage is critical for all addicts and alcoholics, the next stages of recovery are even more important. What happens next is up to the individual, but people who are successful in recovery often enter immediately into a long term inpatient treatment program that deals with issues like Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome and denial management.

To learn how you can enroll in one of the most successful drug rehab centers in the country, call the number at the top of your screen now for a free, confidential consultation.

(1) Wikipedia Drug Detoxification
(2) Max Bayard, M.D., Jonah Mcintyre, M.D., Keith R. Hill, M.D., and Jack Woodside, Jr., M.D., East Tennessee State University, James H. Quillen Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome College of Medicine, Johnson City, Tennessee
American Family Physician. 2004 Mar 15;69(6):1443-1450
(3) Medline Plus Opiate Withdrawal
(4) Wikipedia Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

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Editorial Staff, American Addiction Centers
The editorial staff of Recovery First is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More