What is Medical Detox? 

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Medical detox is the beginning of the addiction recovery process. Detox is the phase when toxins from drugs and/or alcohol clear the body. 

Medical detox helps patients better manage withdrawal symptoms by reducing or eliminating the symptoms with drugs and other treatments. It offers support during the most physically challenging part of recovery when the body is still fully dependent on the substance.

medical detox

Withdrawal from some substances is a potentially life-threatening experience. Medical detox provides supervision and medication to help patients begin their recovery safely and effectively.

What to Expect During a Medical Detox Program

A medical detox program begins with an assessment of the patient. This includes taking a medical history, a physical exam, and a review of the patient’s history of substance use. Patients undergo screening for co-occurring mental health disorders, problems with nutrition, and whether or not they have infectious diseases.

The goal of this initial phase is to assess the severity of the situation and use that information to design an effective treatment program.

If a program offers inpatient treatment, patients receive an assignment of a room and an explanation of the expectations of program participants.

Following the evaluation and assessment, patients begin the stabilization process. They stop using drugs and might receive medication to help them manage their withdrawal symptoms. This phase usually takes about one to three weeks, depending on the substance and severity of the addiction.

Finally, patients enter the preparation phase. This is when they are introduced to the treatment they’ll receive following detox. The worst of the detox phase is over at this point, so patients learn about beginning therapy, entering a 12-step program, or find the best long-term treatment options for their situation.

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Benefits of Medical Detox for Long-Term Recovery

Medical detox offers a safer, more effective recovery alternative. It’s a sober environment that reduces the risk of relapse and prepares patients for subsequent care at a drug and alcohol addiction treatment center.

If withdrawal symptoms occur, medical professionals are available to treat the symptoms. In addition to making withdrawal more comfortable, this reduces the risk of relapse.

Medical detox offers long-term benefits because of the short-term success it provides. The more successful a person’s early days in treatment, the more likely they are to stick with the process and remain sober.

When is Medical Detox Necessary?

Medical detox is necessary when the detoxification process from a substance causes severe withdrawal symptoms. In many cases, the withdrawal process is potentially fatal. For example:

Alcohol Detox

The alcohol detoxification process triggers mild to severe symptoms that begin within six hours after the last drink. Symptoms continue for several days or weeks and include:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Tremors or shaking
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches

Additionally, some alcohol-addicted people experience delirium tremens. This condition triggers extreme confusion, fever, and tactile, visual, and auditory hallucinations.

Drug Detox

Drug detox symptoms depend on the drug. They also vary based on the severity of the addiction. Symptoms begin within a few hours of the last dose and continue for several days or weeks. For most people, the drug detox experience includes at least:

  • Mood swings
  • Sleep problems
  • Headaches
  • Abdominal pains
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle cramps
  • Twitching

Can Teenagers Undergo Medical Detox?

Yes. Teenagers addicted to drugs or alcohol benefit from a medical detox. They attend detox programs at hospitals, detox centers, or rehab facilities. These programs are much the same as programs designed for adults and include:

  • Supervision
  • Medications
  • Safe, temptation-free environments
  • Talk therapy
  • Drug education

The best medical detox programs for teens are designed to suit the patient’s specific needs. There is careful supervision from medical professionals, which allows for immediate intervention if there is a problem.

Dangers of Detoxing Alone & Why You Shouldn’t

Some people are tempted to detox without seeking medical attention. For most people, this is a mistake.

Detoxing at home might seem easier, but there are too many risks. It also increases your risk of relapse.

The most important reason why people should not detox at home is because of the severe side effects that might occur during the process. Detox from alcohol, benzodiazepines, opioids, and other drugs can trigger a variety of dangerous and potentially fatal health complications.

Even if you think you have the willpower to detox alone, it’s not the safest choice. 

How Does Medical Detox Address Addiction?

Successful completion of medical detox alone is not enough to ensure you overcome an addiction. But it’s an important first step in the recovery process.

Patients must receive ongoing treatment, especially if they have a co-occurring mental health issue. Other physical health issues must also be addressed. It isn’t until detox is complete that the hard work of recovery and sober living begins.

Detox is best seen as preparation for the hard work of recovery. Once a drug is out of your system and your immediate risk of complications from withdrawal has passed, you can focus on therapy, group meetings, stress management, family counseling that involves loved ones, life skills training, and long-term substance abuse management.

For many people, medical detox seems daunting. The first few days without a drug on which you have a physical and emotional dependence are not easy. However, with the right kind of medical support, the first phase of recovery can be safe and effective and enhances the long-term treatment plan.

What Addictions May Require Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)?

Alcohol

Drugs used to help with alcohol withdrawal and detox include:

  • Acamprosate
  • Disulfiram
  • Naltrexone 

These medications do not cure alcohol use disorder. They reduce the symptoms of withdrawal and risks associated with the process. They also increase the possibility of long-term sobriety.

Opioids

Drugs used to help with opioid withdrawal and detox include:

  • Buprenorphine
  • Methadone
  • Naltrexone

These medications satisfy the craving for opiates and opioids such as heroin and morphine without the risks of overdose and other complications. Naltrexone reverses the toxic effect of an opioid overdose. 

How Does MAT Work?

MAT works by reducing or blocking the effects of a substance in the brain. This makes the medical detoxification process and withdrawal process easier and less risky.

MAT treatment is meant to be a short-term treatment. It is not a permanent solution, but it makes permanent solutions more effective. When the effect of a drug is reduced and/or the immediate withdrawal symptoms aren’t as severe, long-term recovery has a higher chance of success.

Slowly reducing the craving for a drug makes it easier to resist using the drug.

Research shows people undergoing detox treatment that includes medication-assisted therapy have a lower risk of relapse. It also reduces a person’s risk of contracting infectious diseases, including HIV. Additionally, it reduces the risk of overdosing.  

Potential Side Effects of Medical Detox & MAT

Like all medical treatments, medical detox and MAT causes side effects for some people. For example:

  • Stomachache
  • Sweating
  • Constipation
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Slowed breathing
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Restlessness
  • Itchy skin

How Long is Medical Detox?

The length of medical detox varies from person to person based on the substance in question and the severity of the addiction. Withdrawal symptoms usually begin within 8 to 48 hours after the last dose of a drug and continue for a week to a few weeks. In most cases, the medical detox process lasts no more than four weeks.

How Much Does Medical Detox Cost?

The cost of medical detox varies based on the length of treatment and the services offered by the treatment program. The more intensive the treatment and the more amenities offered the higher the cost of treatment. Treatment of co-occurring disorders increases the cost of treatment.

A standard medical detox program at an accredited facility tends to range between $250 and $500 per day. Rapid detox programs typically cost $10,000 to $15,000 in total.

Luxury detox programs can be as much as $1000 or more per day. These programs offer inpatient hotel-like accommodations, gourmet meals, spa services, holistic treatments, and numerous one-on-one health professionals.

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Resources +

Hayashida, Motoi. An Overview of Outpatient and Inpatient Detoxification. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-1/44-46.pdf.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Addiction Treatment.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 3 May 2021, https://www.drugabuse.gov/nidamed-medical-health-professionals/treatment/addiction-treatment.

Chanell.Baylor. “Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) | SAMHSA - Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.” Samhsa.gov, 21 July 2015, https://www.samhsa.gov/medication-assisted-treatment.

Harvard Health Publishing. “Alcohol Abuse - Harvard Health.” Harvard Health, Harvard Health, 5 Dec. 2014, www.health.harvard.edu/addiction/alcohol-abuse.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Alcohol Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/evidence-based-approaches-to-drug-addiction-treatment/pharmacotherapies/alcohol.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Principles of Effective Treatment.” Drugabuse.gov, 2018, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/principles-effective-treatment

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