Drug and Alcohol Detox

person with dandelion

What is alcohol or drug detox?

Detoxification is the process of flushing substances from the body and managing any resulting withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol detox and withdrawal produce a set of physical and mental symptoms that result from alcohol's departure from the body, commonly referred to as alcohol withdrawal syndrome. The symptoms vary in severity, discomfort and pain: they can be confused for a mild cold or they can prove deadly. This unpredictability makes medical involvement and supervision of the alcohol detox process important. 

Drug detox and withdrawal follow a similar course whether a person is addicted to illegal drugs or prescription pain killers. The drug detox process can also be similar to alcohol detoxification, but the symptoms and medical solutions will vary based on several factors: 

  • The drug or drugs taken
  • The duration and extent of drug use
  • Any family history of drug addiction
  • General health concerns 
  • The presence of co-occurring mental health disorders (meaning there’s a mental health diagnosis like depression or anxiety along with drug addiction)

Alcohol and/or drug detox is typically the first stage in recovery from a substance use disorder (SUD). Medical professionals and treatment centers can provide a safe environment for detoxing from alcohol, opioids and other drugs and also help you transition into a more engaging and holistic treatment experience.

What is alcohol withdrawal syndrome?

Extended use of alcohol forces the body to adjust to its presence. The brain adapts to the depressant effects of alcohol and creates a “new normal” for your nerves and neurological pathways. In this and other ways, your body recalibrates over time to function with alcohol. When alcohol is removed during detox, the body is forced to respond and readjust to its absence. The result: alcohol withdrawal.

What are the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome?

Possible symptoms range from mild and almost imperceptible to serious and possibly fatal. Alcohol detox is complex and somewhat unpredictable because the alcohol withdrawal process varies from person to person. Complicating medical conditions, like heart disease or a history of seizures, can increase the severity of withdrawal. The most common alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Headache 
  • Insomnia/Sleeplessness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Tremors 
  • Delirium tremens 

Some people might not even realize they're experiencing alcohol withdrawal or confuse withdrawal symptoms with a hangover. But withdrawals will become progressively worse, both the symptoms and severity. And for severe cases, conditions like delirium tremens can be fatal.

What is delirium tremens?

Delirium tremens (DTs) is a life-threatening symptom of very severe alcohol withdrawal. About five percent of alcohol withdrawal cases involve delirium tremens, and those most at risk are people who have experienced the condition before or have dealt with seizures in the past. This condition is what makes alcohol withdrawal deadly. Its symptoms and side effects include: 

  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • High blood pressure 
  • Tachycardia (a rapid heartbeat)
  • Seizures

It's absolutely vital for anyone who suspects the onset of DTs to consult medical professionals immediately and seek emergency care.

What are the symptoms of drug withdrawal?

Drug withdrawal symptoms depend on the drug or drugs used. Going through withdrawal can feel like having a terrible case of the flu, especially when withdrawing from pain killers or other opioids. While not all drugs have life-threatening withdrawal periods, withdrawal from some drugs like benzos and opiates can prove fatal. Early stage withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Nausea
  • Body aches and muscle cramps
  • Fever/Chills 
  • Sleeplessness/Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Runny nose
  • Anxiety 
  • Depression
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability

Later stage drug withdrawal symptoms can include: 

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Rapid heartbeat 
  • High blood pressure
  • Dilated pupils

How can I safely detox and manage withdrawal symptoms?

Detox programs and addiction treatment centers are two forms of supervised medical detox. Both provide a safer environment for your detoxification and withdrawal processes than attempting to do so at home. 

As part of the detox process, medical care providers will evaluate your risk factors. For example, if you have heart disease or diabetes you may be at a higher risk for complications during alcohol withdrawal. In an inpatient setting, doctors can safely monitor, manage and ease any existing medical conditions alongside alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and provide a safer, more comfortable withdrawal process.

It's also possible for a doctor to manage your withdrawal symptoms while you remain at home. Physicians can prescribe medications that will relieve symptoms or cravings and give you a better chance at fully quitting and engaging in a safe and healthy recovery.

Which should I use: A detox center or a treatment facility?

Your choice really depends on your goals. Basically, detox centers are for short-term management of symptoms. But detox alone isn't considered addiction treatment, and patients have a high rate of relapse (recurrence of addiction) because programming typically lacks long-term treatment planning or recovery support. That said, for short-term management of alcohol or drug withdrawal, it's always better to have medical supervision—and a detox center can certainly provide that level of oversight. 

At a residential treatment facility like Hazelden Betty Ford, patients receive comprehensive physical and mental health evaluations upon entering an inpatient program. Then, treatment center staff will supervise your withdrawal process and prescribe medications to manage any concurrent health concerns. Once the drug or alcohol detox process is complete, patients continue a treatment plan at the facility and receive a long-term road map for rehabilitation and recovery.

Regardless of your choice about where to detox, a plan for continued care and support will be vital to success if your ultimate goal is abstinence from drugs or alcohol. At a treatment facility, counselors and other clinicians can craft that plan with you.

Are treatment centers effective for both drug rehab and alcohol rehab?

Inpatient and outpatient treatment programs can absolutely address all types of substance use disorders (SUDs). The same general methods of medical intervention and long-term treatment planning are effective for managing any drug abuse issues or drug withdrawal. If co-occurring addictions are involved—where a patient is dependent on alcohol and other drugs—treatment programs will account for those circumstances during medical supervision and treatment planning. 

Why get professional help with withdrawal and detox?

Alcohol and other drug withdrawal can be serious. Although many people experience mild symptoms and may confuse withdrawal with something harmless, the outcome of withdrawal is unpredictable and potentially life-threatening—especially if you have any existing health complications. Involving your doctor or a medical facility will ensure you are safe and protected. If you have tried to quit on your own before, medically supervised detox to manage withdrawal is even more important.

Addiction is not your fault. Don't blame yourself. But keep in mind that, had you been able to quit alone, you likely would have already. The medical community and treatment centers are here to help. Medication-assisted treatment can help you manage your withdrawal. A safe environment allows you to focus entirely on quitting. And a long-term treatment plan increases your likelihood of healthy, sustained recovery.

Update: Seeking treatment is more urgent than ever

As the pandemic lifts, more people who have delayed seeking addiction treatment or mental health services are in need of care. For many, the need for care is more urgent and acute given this delay.

If you or a loved one is experiencing substance abuse of any kind, don’t wait to reach out for help. Loop in your support systems and medical professionals. Especially in cases of heavy use and severe withdrawal, you will want to connect with a medical doctor or treatment center to ensure a safe detoxification process and long-term substance abuse treatment planning.

Getting help starts with reaching out. If there aren’t people in your life you can turn to right now, there are community organizations and treatment centers like Hazelden Betty Ford that are ready to help. Most of all, know that you’re not alone in this. 

Harnessing science, love and the wisdom of lived experience, we are a force of healing and hope ​​​​​​​for families and communities affected by substance use and mental health conditions.