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The Basics of Drug and Alcohol Detox

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Specific physical and mental changes occur when a person misuses drugs or alcohol. Over time and with repeated use, these changes can develop into a physical or emotional “need” to continue taking the substance. That need may appear in the form of physical dependency or addiction.

Addiction and physical dependence often occur at the same time, but they are actually two different conditions. Physical dependence is a state that occurs when the body has adapted to a drug and needs more and more of it to get the same desired results. Addiction is the condition in which a person seeks the substance compulsively even though the results of use are actually undesirable and dangerous. Both addiction and physical dependence change the reward system of the brain and lead to cravings.

Physical Dependency and Addiction

drugs and alcoholPhysical dependency, substance abuse and addiction are all considered parts of a larger condition known as a “substance use disorder,” a treatable and manageable diagnosis. In most cases, both a physical dependence and an emotional addiction occur at the same time. The combination of these two things makes it difficult to overcome substance use disorders without proper support.

Withdrawal: A Physical Effect of Substance Use Disorder

Physical dependence leads to physical withdrawal symptoms as soon as the substance fully leaves the body. The emotional effects of an addiction place extra stress on the body and mind as well. Withdrawal occurs when the use of the drug or alcohol suddenly stops.

Symptoms of physical withdrawal often include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Anxiety, sweating, heart palpitations
  • Depression and an accompanied temporary loss of interest in daily activity
  • Irritability and heightened level of emotional sensitivity
  • Nausea and loss of desire to eat
  • Cold or flu-like symptoms

For example, in severe cases of alcohol use disorder, withdrawal symptoms may begin within eight hours after the last drink. This means that many people with advanced-stage alcohol use disorder wake up in the morning with a strong physical craving to have more alcohol. Sometimes, however, alcohol withdrawal symptoms do not appear for a few days. When alcohol is not available to the system, these symptoms can persist off and on for weeks.1

The Importance of Healthy Detoxification

Detoxification is a process in which withdrawal symptoms are handled in a controlled and safe manner. In detox, the addicted or physically dependent person is safely distanced from the substance. Although withdrawal symptoms may feel quite intense, individuals can find great relief if they go through the detoxification process with medical supervision and assistance.

Some drugs are dangerous to quit alone. In some instances, sudden cessation of drug use may immediately result in a shock to the body that can actually send an individual to the emergency room. Anyone with an addiction or physical dependency is encouraged to see a doctor who can give suggestions about coming off the substance in a balanced and controlled way.

Detoxification is a necessary step to treat addiction and overcome physical dependency. Those who are afraid to take the step of detoxification rob themselves of the ability to move forward to freedom from the slavery to the addictive substance. A medically supervised detox can result in a faster recovery and a more successful life of sobriety.

In some cases, a substance use disorder co-exists with a mental health condition. “Dual diagnosis” means that addiction co-occurs with another mental health or physical health condition. Safe, supported detoxification is especially important in cases of dual diagnosis. Once the effects of drugs or alcohol wear off, a reputable dual diagnosis treatment facility can assist with other co-occurring conditions immediately.

Life After Detox

With addiction disorders, detox is only one of the steps necessary to become healthy again. Although a person has gone through the detoxification process, addiction is still a neurocognitive diagnosis that will compel that person to seek the drug again. It takes a very strong mental re-structuring process in order to fortify convictions against addictive thinking. Most people will need therapy to learn how to live an addiction-free life. Specialized therapy is offered at many detoxification and rehab facilities.2

Some people are able to detox from substances with the help of an outpatient treatment program, while others find it necessary to check into an overnight, inpatient detox program without giving in to addictive compulsions. Either of these methods can be very successful. Success in treatment depends on the quality of treatment, along with the individual and the circumstances and addiction habits, history.

It is wise to consider inpatient treatment with a dedicated detox program. The benefits of inpatient treatment include a higher success rate, a bigger support network, and, with the assistance of a medically supervised detox, a more comfortable detoxification time period.

1“Alcohol Withdrawal.” Medline Plus.14 January 2007. Web. Accessed 09 June 2017.

“Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment.” Center for Substance Abuse Treatment; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2006. Web. Accessed 09 June 2017.