Drug and Alcohol Detoxing: What it Really Is

Drug and alcohol abuse plagues people of any age, from teenagers to senior citizens. Roughly 17 million adults had an alcohol-use disorder in 2012. Of this number, approximately 1.4 million adults sought recovery and received treatment in a facility in that same year. Drug abuse statistics continue to climb in the United States. Drugs of choice include illicit drugs, such as marijuana and heroin. Prescription drug abuse is also a prevalent problem for many people. In 2009, almost 2.1 million people visited emergency rooms as a result of drug abuse. When drug abuse or alcohol use becomes a problem, detoxification may be necessary to move through the addiction and onto recovery.

What is Detox?

When someone who has been abusing drugs or alcohol suddenly stops using these chemicals, the body undergoes a process of withdrawal as it adjusts and adapts to the cessation. The withdrawal process often involves physical and emotional symptoms, some of which can be uncomfortable and even dangerous. Detox consists of the process of a patient’s body ridding itself of the unhealthy chemicals that have accumulated during the period of drug or alcohol abuse.

Benefits of Detoxing in a Facility instead of at Home

Detox can occur either on an inpatient or outpatient basis. If detox occurs for a patient who remains at home, this outpatient care typically involves the patient spending time at a facility during the day and returning home at night. A disadvantage of this type of detox consists of the potential for relapse during the time spent away from the facility. Inpatient care at a facility offers 24-hour care and supervision, which can be advantageous for an addict who may not be able to avoid the temptation to use drugs or alcohol successfully. Inpatient detox also offers a higher level of medical care for patients who may need it.

Symptoms of Withdrawal from Various Types of Drugs and Alcohol

During the detox period, people will exhibit specific withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can be exceedingly unpleasant, depending on the chemical involved and the person’s ability to manage the symptoms. Withdrawal from cocaine can include symptoms such as intense craving for the drug, irritability, and depression. Withdrawal from heroin or other opiates typically begins within four to eight hours of the last use. These symptoms include sweating, chills, runny nose, tremors, irritability, and insomnia. Symptoms typically peak between 24 and 72 hours after the last usage, and they may last up to 10 days. Opiate withdrawal symptoms can range in severity. A patient who has combined opiate use with other drug or alcohol use may experience severe withdrawal symptoms. Severe withdrawal symptoms could become life-threatening for a patient. Withdrawal from alcohol involves symptoms such as tremors, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, sweating, headaches, hallucinations, insomnia, delirium tremens, and grand mal seizures. Alcohol withdrawal can also be life-threatening for a patient, and inpatient care is often warranted.

Detox Methods for Various Substances

During alcohol detox, a patient may receive medications that can eliminate the risk of hallucinations and seizures. Medication can also help alleviate the anxiety associated with alcohol withdrawal. Inpatient opiate detoxification may involve administering medication to help the patient through the withdrawal period. Methadone is a standard medication used for opiate detox. People addicted to drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine may receive assistance during withdrawal with antidepressants or tranquilizers.

Risks and Benefits of Detoxing

Detoxing has many obvious benefits for the addict. With the cessation of alcohol or drug abuse, the body can recover from the damage to the brain and other organs. The addict’s personal life also improves after detox. Patients may regain their ability to manage relationships, and they become accountable for their actions once again. Detox can involve some physical risks depending on the chemicals involved. For example, withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol and opiates can be severe and even life-threatening for some patients. For patients with serious addictions, inpatient care can deliver the level of care necessary during detox.

How to Help Someone Detox

Recovery can be challenging, so support from family and friends is essential for the patient. Encouraging inpatient detox can be helpful to ensure that the patient receives complete and comprehensive care during withdrawal. It’s also important to realize how difficult the detox process usually is for a patient. People will typically feel both physically and emotionally uncomfortable, which could lead to feelings of frustration, anger, anxiety, and depression. Intense cravings for the drugs or alcohol are also typical. To help a friend or family member during withdrawal, offer support, patience, and encouragement. Make positive suggestions for self-care, such as eating a healthy diet, drinking plenty of water, engaging in a mild activity, participating in therapy sessions, and cooperating with health care staff. Offer to listen if the patient wants to talk. With the passage of time, the worst of the withdrawal symptoms will pass, and the patient can move forward with the remaining recovery work.


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