Many people in addiction are afraid of the detox process. In movies, they depict the subject going cold turkey, alone in an uncomfortable room—the basis of the myths surrounding the terrors of early sobriety. But the truth is far removed from these fictional depictions. In fact, professional detox is actually a rather gentle first step to recovery.
At the start of your sober journey, there are three steps to the detox process: evaluation, stabilization, and transition into treatment.
Evaluation: This stage involves assessing the overall health condition of the individual by performing blood tests, screening for other mental and physical conditions, and assessment of psychosocial situations.
Stabilization: Using the evaluations from step one, an appropriate treatment program is formulated for the individual. This is the stage where medications may or may not be administered depending on the outcome of the evaluation.
Transition: Based on the information acquired and developed in steps one and two, the individual moves forward with the decided upon treatment program.
Typical Withdrawal Symptoms
Detox causes several side effects, but most are not severe. As a matter of fact, less than half of the people with alcohol dependence experience withdrawal symptoms. The severity of the withdrawal, however, does depend on various factors such as the substance abused and the length of drug usage. When the amount of alcohol or drugs in an addict’s system drops from the amount the tissues are accustomed to, the body may react through the following set of symptoms.
Mild Symptoms: These symptoms typically don’t need hospitalization.
- Excessive worrying
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- “The shakes"
- Feelings of edginess and tension
Severe Symptoms: Delirium Tremens (DTs) is the most serious side effect of alcohol withdrawal and begins about 48 to 72 hours after the last drink is taken. It may take up to a week for the symptoms to ease. If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, please note that hospitalization is recommended.
- Shallow or irregular breathing
- Highly elevated blood pressure
- Very fast pulse
- Severe dehydration
- Profuse sweating
- Sleep difficulties
- Irrational thoughts or behavior
Individuals at High Risk to Undergo Withdrawal Symptoms:
- Elderly patients with addiction to drugs or alcohol
- Anyone who has been drinking daily for ten years or more
- Binge drinkers whose binges last two weeks or more
- Anyone at high risk of seizures - epileptic or otherwise
- People who have experienced withdrawal symptoms in the past
- Anyone with an ongoing medical condition, especially those with cardiac, liver or kidney problems
How Detox Facilities Handle Withdrawals
Entering a treatment program—whether it’s for detox only or long-term rehab—will give you the peace of mind of knowing you won’t be alone during the withdrawal stage. Detoxing from alcohol or drugs takes anywhere from two days to several weeks depending on the general health of the patient, the severity of the addiction, and whether the addict is addicted to more than one substance. During this time, addiction professionals are able to carefully monitor your symptoms as well as provide FDA approved medications that can help ease withdrawals and cravings.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recommends the following medications for treating alcohol-dependent persons in detox and post-detox.
DisulfiramFor those who have completed detox, this medication works by causing nausea, palpitations, and flushing when small amounts of alcohol are ingested. These symptoms last approximately one hour and are usually enough of a deterrent to stop the individual from taking another drink. The effectiveness of this drug, because it depends solely on the patient's cooperation, is most successful for those who are highly motivated to quit.
NaltrexoneThis helps to control cravings for alcohol by blocking reward receptors involved in the pleasant effects of alcohol on the brain and, therefore, the body.
AcamprosateIt reduces withdrawal symptoms of anxiety, restlessness and sleep disorders. It also reduces cravings post-detox and is the number one recommended drug for persons with liver problems.
Depending on an individual's specific treatment regimen, the above medications used alone or in combination help get them through detox and give impetus to recovery. Other medications that may be used in detoxing from opioids and drugs other than alcohol include methadone, naltrexone—which works for both alcohol and opioid dependency—suboxone, and buprenorphine—which eases cravings to prevent long and short-term relapse.
People who receive these medications are closely monitored for adverse reactions. Accompanying the medications, nutritional supplements, non-opioid pain relievers, sleep aids, and other supplemental support medications may also be provided to the patient in order to address other withdrawal-related symptoms as they arise.