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Drug and Alcohol Detox Information

detox treatment

Many mind-altering drugs, including alcohol, are associated with severe, uncomfortable, and even life-threatening withdrawal symptoms when a person who has been regularly using the substance(s) suddenly reduces their dose dramatically or stops using completely.1 Due to the physical discomfort and psychological distress that may accompany withdrawal, many people attempting to get sober seek out medical detoxification as the first step on the road to recovery from substance abuse issues.2Detoxing can be stressful and sometimes dangerous. Many people relapse when they attempt to withdraw alone, so the value of professional detox can't be overstated.

Do All Addicts Experience Withdrawal?

Not every person actively addicted to and abusing substances will experience withdrawal when they attempt to quit. In fact, addiction and its potential consequences go well beyond merely the emergence of withdrawal symptoms. Addiction is a condition wherein maladaptive substance-related thoughts, feelings, and behavioral changes develop and support continued substance abuse. As a result, drugs and/or alcohol become the main focus in that person’s life, even when they are causing devastating harm to the individual2It is not addiction itself but rather physical dependence to a substance that results in withdrawal.


Physical dependence develops from frequent or consistent, long-term use of substances like alcohol, heroin, and cocaine. The use of prescription drugs, such as opioid painkillers and benzodiazepines, may also lead to the development of some amount of physical dependence, even when used according to prescription guidelines.2


When a patient uses substances—for example, alcohol or sedatives—consistently, certain signaling chemicals in the brain may begin to function abnormally. Though the precise impact on these chemicals will vary by substance, the results of drug or alcohol abuse could be that activity in one neurotransmitter system is abnormally increased, while that in another diminishes.[i] As the brain keeps adapting to achieve a new balance in the face of such chemical turmoil, physical dependence sets in. Once a significant level of dependence develops, the brain begins to need the drug to maintain its new normal. At this point, when the drug is discontinued, withdrawal symptoms arise.


Although all drugs affect the brain, not all drugs create physical dependence, and without physical dependence, there will be no withdrawal.2 Substances with known withdrawal syndromes include:[ii]


  • Alcohol
  • Opioids, including prescription pain medications and heroin.
  • Sedatives, including medications like barbiturates and benzodiazepines.
  • Stimulants, including cocaine, methamphetamine (crystal meth), and prescription medications for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
  • Marijuana



Other substances like hallucinogens are not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as having withdrawal syndromes.4 Some drug classes are the subject of disagreement among recognized addiction organizations; inhalant withdrawal, for example, is not recognized by the APA but is recognized by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).1

What are Common Symptoms?

Withdrawal symptoms are drug-specific. These symptoms can range from minor (e.g., upset stomach) to very serious (such as changes in heart rhythm, breathing difficulties, and even life-threatening seizures) 4

An alcohol-dependent person who stops drinking may experience symptoms such as:4


  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Higher heart rate.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures


Because other sedating drugs, like benzodiazepines, affect the brain in ways similar to alcohol, they will produce similar withdrawal effects.4


People withdrawing from opioids can experience very intense flu-like symptoms as well as some psychological distress. Symptoms often include:4


  • Anxiety and restlessness.
  • Muscle aches.
  • Runny nose and watery eyes.
  • Sweating
  • Fever
  • Nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.

For someone quitting stimulants, symptoms of withdrawal might include:4


  • Fatigue
  • Vivid dreams and nightmares.
  • Periods of sleeping a lot or not sleeping at all.
  • Unusually quick or slow body movements.

Cannabis and marijuana withdrawal symptoms include:4

  • Irritability and anger with possible aggression.
  • Worry, nervousness, and anxiety.
  • Poor sleep and troubling dreams.


Not every person will experience every characteristic symptom of withdrawal, but most people detoxing from a substance associated with a known withdrawal syndrome will experience at least some. In many cases, the best way to manage these symptoms is to get professional treatment, whether inpatient or outpatient.



Physical dependence results from long-term abuse of alcohol and drugs such as opioid pain relievers, heroin, and cocaine. When a patient who suffers from physical dependence is unable to obtain the substances to which he or she has become addicted, neurotransmitters and receivers in the brain are affected as they are accustomed to functioning in a particular, disturbed way due to the presence of ever-increasing quantities of mind-altering substances. Therefore, unpleasant and dangerous withdrawal symptoms result when the brain sends messages demanding additional drugs or alcohol and the substances are not available.

These symptoms range from simple stomach or respiratory discomfort to increase in heart rate, breathing disturbances, and even dangerous seizures. Therefore, an addict who attempts to stop using addictive substances in an attempt to quit "cold turkey" will often fail or even endanger his or her health unless detoxification procedures are initiated to stop withdrawal symptoms.

Traditional medical detox does not actually "detoxify" the body by getting rid of stored poisons. Its aim is to stop the toxic effects of withdrawal by substituting less dangerous and less addictive medications for alcohol and abused drugs. The medications used for detoxification affect the same parts of the brain that abused substances do, so they answer the brain's call for additional doses of alcohol or abused drugs without causing the same damage or perpetuating the cycle of tolerance and dependency to the abused substances.

Detoxifying from alcohol and drugs is crucial to recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction. Even when a patient is addicted to both alcohol and drugs, or if addiction to more than one drug is an issue, detox treatments will help overcome withdrawal symptoms so that a recovering addict can begin intensive counseling and rehabilitation in comfort and health.

If you or a loved one is ready to quit abusing alcohol or drugs, but needs help overcoming or avoiding withdrawal symptoms, please call our national drug recovery information helpline at 1-888-935-1318Who Answers?. We are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to help you find the right program for successful detox and addiction treatment.

Detoxification Options and Programs

Most detox procedures are offered in an inpatient setting. Residential rehabilitation treatment programs begin with medically supervised detoxification, and administering the detox treatments in the pleasant setting of a rehabilitation center helps patients to relax and become accustomed to a drug-free life. Detoxification can also be carried out in a hospital, although this is usually done only in cases of very severe addiction or when other physical or emotional health issues are present that require hospitalization. Outpatient procedures to detoxify recovering addicts are available, but outpatient treatment is usually only recommended in cases of mild addiction or when a patient cannot interrupt his or her schedule to spend time in a residential treatment center. Such outpatient procedures involve administering the detox medications in a clinic or office where the patient can be monitored in the event emergency procedures are necessary. Monitoring is also necessary to ensure that patients comply with their detoxification regimens and do not return to use of addictive substances.

Some clinics and treatment centers claim to offer natural methods of detoxification. If these methods are meant to detoxify the body in the sense of ridding it of harmful substances, and help it repair itself through diet and use of recognized alternative treatments, then such natural procedures can be helpful. In fact, vitamins are a part of some traditional detoxification procedures, especially when alcohol abuse, which leads to malnutrition, is involved. Traditional medical detox is the only method of treatment that has been proven effective when it comes to actually preventing the discomfort and possible danger of withdrawal symptoms.

Treatment Center Features

In 2016, Recovery Brands asked patients leaving a rehabilitation center which characteristics they had come to view as valuable to examine when looking at a program. The highest-rated priority was the program's financial options, for example insurance accepted and payment options. They also appreciated the facility's offerings (facility housing, extra activities, room quality, etc.) much more after finishing treatment. Individuals considering programs will want to look at a facility's payment policies as well as clinic offerings to help with their final facility choice.

Changes in Preferences Pre- and Post-Treatment

Nevertheless, proper nutrition, exercise, and alternative health preservation techniques such as meditation are very beneficial to helping recovering addicts overcome their struggle with addiction. Once the initial detox procedure is completed, behavioral therapy and intensive counseling are necessary to help patients progress even further toward full recovery.

Full recovery from alcohol and drug abuse occurs when former addicts no longer feel any need to turn to mind-altering substances for recreation, or to deal with personal issues from which they want to escape. Recovery is best started with detox that prevents the detrimental effects of abrupt withdrawal from addictive substances, but medical detoxification is only the first step toward breaking the grip of alcohol and drug addiction.

Please call our nationwide drug and alcohol recovery information helpline at 1-888-935-1318Who Answers? to find out more about comprehensive addiction treatment programs that include medical detox as well as full medical, psychological, and social support.


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