By Patti Richards
The struggle with drug and alcohol addiction is more than just an intense desire for a substance. People who are addicted develop a physical dependence on their drug of choice. No matter the consequences, they need it to feel normal and function. For some people, that means starting the day without a drink or a drug seems impossible. And if the drugs or alcohol are withdrawn, some intense and scary symptoms appear. It’s a vicious and dangerous cycle of feeding an addiction, and the only way to end it is through treatment. That’s why the best treatment programs begin with medically-supervised detox.
What is Detox?
Because drugs and alcohol create a physical dependence, stopping the substance from entering the body for a period of time is the only way to return it to a somewhat normal state. Without this normalization, the need for the drug of choice is overwhelming. The taste, the smell, the feelings that the drug produces and the desire to use again are all so deeply programmed into the brain that simply turning those things off without the right help is next to impossible. That’s where medically-supervised detox comes in.
Detox gives the body the opportunity to rid itself of the toxins of the drug. In a medically-supervised facility, this is done with the help of medical professionals, drugs and other holistic pain-relieving methods to help the detoxing person stay safe. The most difficult part of the process is coping with the intense withdrawal symptoms brought on by the absence of the drug. Some of these symptoms can include:
- Severe confusion or hallucinations
- Mood swings
- Increase in blood pressure
- Racing heart
- Delirium tremens
- Cardiovascular collapse1
Treatment for opioid withdrawal in particular often includes a drug called clonidine, which can help reduce withdrawal cravings. Intense drug cravings greatly increase the risk of addiction relapse, especially when it comes to opioids.2
Struggling with the symptoms of detox on your own without medical supervision can be dangerous. Although most withdrawal symptoms aren’t life threatening, the risk of developing complications is possible. That’s why detox should never be attempted on your own.
How Long is Detox?
The length of detox programs varies depending on several factors. One of the most important considerations is the drug of addiction. Each drug clears the system at a different rate, and in some cases, it can take up to a week for a drug to fully leave the body. Rapid detox programs can be completed in three days or less. During rapid detox, the patient is put under anesthesia while the drug is removed from the body. Rapid detox is not possible for all types of addiction, and you or your loved one should never leave a detox program until medical personnel have cleared you to move to the next stage of your treatment.
Detox Phase II
It may seem like going through detox and getting all traces of drugs or alcohol out of your system is all it takes to end addiction, but it’s only the beginning of the road to recovery. According to Dan Mager, MSW, for Psychology Today, there are actually two phases of drug withdrawal. Once the acute phase has ended, the second phase begins. Phase II of detox depends largely on how long a person has used drugs and can last for months after drug use has ended. This phase is often referred to as Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS), and the symptoms can be present and difficult long after all traces of drugs or alcohol have left the body. Some of the symptoms of PAWS can include the following:
- Mood swings, anxiety, irritability
- Tiredness, variable energy, low enthusiasm
- Variable concentration
- Disturbed sleep3
This phase of detox is a necessary part of the process that every person recovering from drug or alcohol addiction must go through.
The Road to Recovery
On the road to recovery, detox is only the beginning. Ridding the body and brain of drug toxins increases the chance of treatment success, but it does not guarantee that relapse won’t happen along the way. Dealing with the symptoms of PAWS, developing coping skills to deal with relapse triggers and understanding the behaviors and relationships that led to the addiction are all part of learning to live life without drugs. The only place to develop these necessary skills is addiction treatment.
Once detox has ended, you or your loved one’s team of doctors, therapists and other mental health professionals will determine a diagnosis and treatment plan that best meets your needs. This includes understanding any family history of addiction and whether you or your loved one is suffering from any underlying mental illness.
Once a diagnosis is reached, treatment including psychotherapy, counseling, group therapy sessions and family therapy can begin. Rehab programs also include holistic options like yoga, nutrition counseling, career counseling, exercise, meditation and spiritual counseling. The length of the program is determined by you or your loved one’s needs and your insurance coverage. Most rehab programs last 30, 60 or 90 days.4
Finding Help for Addiction
Detox is the beginning of the journey to a life free from the control of a substance. If you or your loved one struggles with addiction, we are here for you. Call our helpline 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about available treatment options.
1 Taite, Richard. “Medically Supervised Alcohol Detox Aids Alcoholism Recovery.” Psychology Today, November 18, 2013.
2 Cosgrove, Jaclyn. “What’s it like: To go through medical detox.” NewsOK, April 7, 2013.
3 Mager, Dan. “Detoxing after Detox: The Perils of Post-Acute Withdrawal.” Psychology Today, May 26, 2015.
4 “Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, January 2018.