Medical Detox: How It Works and What to Expect

“Medical detox.” The term can be a bit intimidating. It sounds serious…and it is.

But medical detox is an important first step on the road to recovery. And it’s less intimidating once you know what to expect. So, let’s talk about it.

Here’s what you need to know.

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What is Medical Detox?

“Detox” is short for detoxification. It’s the process of cleansing your body of toxins, or poisons (in this case, drugs and/or alcohol).

The word “medical” is added because this process happens under medical supervision. This is key. If your body has become dependent on a substance, it can be very dangerous to detox on your own. Medical detox is the safe way to rid your systems of substances and start on a path to sobriety.

A team of licensed medical professionals always oversees medical detox. The staff may include a physician, nurses, therapists, and other clinical staff. These medical experts monitor your health while you’re in detox and provide treatment to ease the symptoms of withdrawal.

What Does Medical Detox Look Like?

Okay…it’s supervised by medical experts. But what exactly can you expect during medical detox? There are three basic parts to this process: intake, detox support, and follow-up care.

Let’s look at each one individually:

#1 Intake Exam

Before you begin medical detox, you’ll complete a medical examination. This will let the medical team identify important information about your health, ensuring they’re able to provide the best support while you’re in detox.

The intake exam will include discussions about your drinking and drug use history, your current health, and basic medical tests such as blood work.

#2 Detox Support

When your body becomes dependent on a substance, once you stop staking it, you experience withdrawal symptoms.

Working through the withdrawal phase is the main focus of medical detox. The medical team will supervise you through the symptoms of withdrawal and help you get physically stable.

Your age, weight, and history of substance abuse affect the occurrence and severity of withdrawal symptoms.

Typically, you can expect to start experiencing withdrawal a few hours after you stop using drugs or alcohol. Symptoms usually peak in one to three days.

Withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Shaky hands
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Hallucinations
  • Confusion
  • Fever
  • High blood pressure
  • Racing heart
  • Muscle aches
  • Diarrhea
  • Mood swings
  • Depression

Medications administered to minimize withdrawal symptoms:

Medical staff will provide fluids and other assistance to help with the symptoms. They may give you muscle relaxers, sedatives, anti-nausea medication, anti-seizure medication, or vitamin supplements, depending on your symptoms.

In some cases, a doctor may provide addiction medication to alleviate withdrawal symptoms and treat the addiction.

The most common addiction medications include:

  • Methadone: This is a fully activated opioid that is used to prevent opioid withdrawal. Patients who receive methadone taper off of it gradually.
  • Naltrexone: Medical professionals use this for the treatment of opioid and alcohol use disorders. It is an opioid-blocking agent that can be used once a person has not taken any opioids for seven days.
  • Vivitrol: This is an injectable form of naltrexone and can be used to treat opioid and alcohol use disorders. It can only be used on patients who have been without opioids for at least a week.
  • Suboxone (buprenorphine): Used in the treatment of opioid use disorders, suboxone is a partial activator of the opioid receptor.
  • Sublocade: This injectable form of buprenorphine is used for treatment of opioid abuse. It may be given to patients who have previously received Suboxone for a week, to continue long-term treatment.

Additional information to keep in mind: 

Not everyone receives addiction medication during detox, but it is common. Other support will include monitoring your heart rate, temperature, and hydration.

You can expect regular checks of your pulse, breathing, and blood pressure while in medical detox. Medical staff will take steps to keep these basic functions stable as your body detoxes.

#3 Follow-Up Care

Detox is an important part of breaking an addiction. However, medical detox alone is not a complete addiction treatment program. It is the initial step to getting treatment.

The final part of medical detox is getting you into a treatment program – this is where you’ll learn how to break free of the addiction. (Don’t worry – we’ll talk more about this process in the “What’s Next After Medical Detox?” section below.)

How Long Does Medical Detox Take?

Several factors affect the length of medical detox. (They also affect how intense the process will be.) But, you can expect medical detox to last from five to seven days.

Here’s what can affect the timeline and intensity:

  • Substance of abuse: The drug you’re addicted to will affect the type of withdrawal symptoms you have and how long they last.
  • History of use: If you’ve used a substance for a long time or very frequently, you’re more likely to experience withdrawal symptoms.
  • Quantity of use: Heavy substance use causes greater tolerance in the body. This can make withdrawal symptoms more drastic.
  • Your body: Weight, body chemistry, genetics, and metabolism all affect withdrawal symptoms and the rate of detox.

Who Needs Medical Detox?

At this point, you’re probably wondering whether you should try quitting on your own or if you need medical detox. To help you make a clear and informed decision, consider the following questions:

  • Have you been using a substance regularly in large amounts?
  • Have you used a substance over an extended period of time?
  • Have you built up a tolerance? (Meaning you have to use more of the substance to get the same effect that it used to give.)
  • Do you crave the substance when you can’t get it?
  • Have you tried to quit using the substance, but you weren’t able to stop on your own?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s best to seek medical detox to help break your addiction. These questions describe situations where your body has become dependent on the substance. That means you’ll experience withdrawal when you stop using, so you’ll want medical assistance to help you work through the symptoms.

Which Substances Commonly Require Medical Detox?

You may also wonder which substances cause withdrawal symptoms and which addictions tend to require medical detox. If you’re struggling with an addiction to any of the following substances, it’s a good idea to get evaluated for medical detox.

  • Alcohol
  • Benzodiazepines/benzos (Xanax, Ativan, Valium, Klonopin)
  • Opioids (morphine, heroin, codeine, oxycodone, hydromorphone)
  • Prescription drugs (anything used in a way unintended by the prescriber)
  • Stimulants (cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA)
  • Synthetic drugs (fentanyl, kratom, krokodil, bath salts)

What’s Next After Medical Detox?

If you complete medical detox and fail to enter into a treatment program, it can be easy to relapse by slipping into old habits.

Remember, the detox process only takes care of the initial physical consequences of the addiction.

It’s important to follow up with a treatment program to address the other issues (emotional, spiritual, behavioral).

After medical detox, people usually follow up with a residential (inpatient) or outpatient program. Here, you’ll also receive ongoing support from individual or group counseling and/or a 12-step program.

If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance use disorder, help is available. Call 800-996-6135(Who Answers?) today to get the help you need.

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