Medical detox is a crucial component of every program of recovery – without medically monitored detoxification, an individual’s chance at maintaining sobriety decreases significantly. Medical detox centers help drug addicts and alcoholics to safely withdraw from their drug of choice, medicating them as necessary and making them as comfortable and safe as possible in order to prevent any potentially life-threatening complications of withdrawal. While many detox facilities treat drug and alcohol withdrawal simultaneously, the withdrawal symptoms and processes for most drugs and for alcohol tend to vary greatly. Let’s take a close look at the detox process for differing types of drugs as well as the detox process for alcohol, and examine exactly why attending a medically monitored detoxification facility is a crucial first step on the journey towards comprehensive recovery – no matter what substances were involved.

Alcohol Detox

Alcohol withdrawal is a potentially life-threatening syndrome – one that can quickly prove fatal if not properly treated. If an individual maintains heavy and consistent drinking for years, months, or even weeks, and then abruptly ceases or slows consumption, he or she could experience a multitude of serious symptoms that could potentially lead to death. Symptoms range in severity from uncontrollable shakiness and dizziness to seizures, stroke, and delirium tremens. Delirium tremens, also known as ‘the DTs’, are characterized by fever, increased heartbeat, and hallucinations, are responsible for nearly 5% of all alcohol-related fatalities. Even if alcohol withdrawal symptoms seem mild at first, they have been known to rapidly worsen, and medical help should be sought immediately upon the discontinuation on heavy alcohol consumption. When someone who has engaged in heavy drinking for an extended period of time ceases use suddenly, the neurotransmitters that were previously suppressed by the alcohol are no longer being suppressed, and they rapidly rebound. This rebound results in a dangerous phenomenon known as hyperexcitability. Thus, the intense anxiety, agitations, tremors, seizures, and potential DTs are all opposite effects of those initially associated with alcohol consumption.

If you believe you may be experiencing the beginning symptoms of alcohol withdrawal but are unsure as to what signs to look for, you may want to look out for the following. In most cases, minor symptoms of withdrawal will begin between 6 and 12 hours after an individual ceases use. Minor symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Sweating
  • Mild shakiness (particularly shaky hands)
  • Anxiety
  • Headache
  • Agitation
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia

Most individuals will refer to mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms as ‘a hangover’, unaware that these are all early signs of the beginning stages of alcohol abuse and physical dependency. Unlike these mild symptoms, symptoms of delirium tremens tend to peak 5 days after consumption is ceased. For this reason amongst several others, it is crucial that any individual who ceases use after a prolonged period of heavy drinking seek help immediately – even if symptoms are initially mild. Symptoms of the DTS include the following:

  • Visual hallucinations
  • Intense anxiety
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Profuse sweating
  • Increased heart rate/heart palpitations
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Seizures
  • Fever
  • Severe shakiness/tremors

No matter how mild your symptoms, they should not be ignored. Medically monitored alcohol detox programs have saved innumerable lives, and have proven to be an essential first step on the lifelong journey of alcoholism recovery.

The length of the withdrawal process and the severity of the symptoms are heavily dependent on the type of drug being abused. For example, an individual who is withdrawing from prolonged heroin abuse may experience symptoms such as muscle pain, restlessness, cold sweats, diarrhea, and vomiting. While the physical symptoms of heroin withdrawal may only last for several days, the mental symptoms may last for several weeks. Many heroin addicts who suddenly cease use experience dysphoria and intense generalized depression for weeks after quitting. Heroin withdrawal, as well as many other forms of drug withdrawal, can typically be treated with medication and therapy – though it is important to remember that detox is not the same as inpatient treatment, and will not keep an individual sober for any extended period of time. Detox with no follow-up will likely result in rapid relapse, thus drug detox should always be immediately followed by behavioral-based recovery in an inpatient treatment setting.

What To Expect In Medical Detox

While being treated for symptoms of withdrawal in a medically monitored detox unit, there are several standards that you can typically expect. You can expect to see a licensed prescribing physician upon admission, a medical professional who will prescribe medications necessary to relieve the symptoms of withdrawal and make the entire process less painful and less dangerous. You can expect a brief introduction to the therapeutic process of recovery, along with an exposure to the 12-step method of addiction recovery. The vast majority of medical detox facilities will bring in meetings for patients who are well enough to participate. One of the most crucial elements of every detox facility is the formulation of a comprehensive and individualized aftercare program – as previously stated, inpatient treatment is an absolutely essential next step.