Getting a Medical Detox Could Save Your Life

Detox is the first step of any recovery plan, and how you choose to detox as you begin your recovery can make a big difference to your future success. Studies have shown that without medications to treat drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms, 90% of people in recovery relapse within months.

What is a medical detox?

Medical detox manages the acute physical withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings associated with quitting drugs or alcohol in a way that ensures the comfort and safety of the person in recovery. On its own, medical detox is not a guarantee of long-term abstinence, but it does improve your chances, as well as safeguard your health.

Some people undergo a medical detox through an outpatient program at a detox center, and some through inpatient, residential programs at medical detox centers that are often located in hospitals. Medical detox centers not only provide medical interventions to help patients cope with the physical aspects of substance use disorders, they also provide counseling and behavioral therapy to address the psychological and practical aspects. These centers set patients up for long-term success.

Most medical detox centers provide inpatient treatment for at least two weeks, because it usually takes that long to fully rid the patient’s body of all traces of substances, while some need to remain in treatment for a month or longer. Medical detox centers are the safest choice if you have been addicted to alcohol or drugs for a year or longer, if you suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms, or if the primary substance you use has a particularly risky form of detox.

Contact us now to find medical detox centers in your area.

Who Answers?

What drugs can be used in a medical detox?

Repeated drug or alcohol use makes changes in your brain and body that lead to physical, emotional, and mental addiction. These changes take a long time to heal, and the resulting withdrawal symptoms will cause most people with substance use disorder to start using again within days or weeks.

If, however, you are treated with medications that are FDA-approved to treat drug and alcohol addiction, your brain and body will be able to stabilize, giving you relief from symptoms, and improving your overall level of functioning. Not only does this reduce your chances of returning to substance use, it also gives you the energy and focus you need to apply yourself to the other aspects of recovery, such as counseling.

Medications used in medical detox from drugs and alcohol include:


Naltrexone can be used to detox patients from opiate drugs like heroin, fentanyl, or oxycodone, as well as alcohol. It binds to the same opiate receptors that have been compromised through addiction, and blocks withdrawal symptoms, in addition to drug and alcohol cravings. It also blocks the intoxicating effects of drugs or alcohol, so that patients will not be able to get high if they attempt to drink or use again.


Methadone is a synthetic opiate that blocks withdrawal symptoms by binding to the same receptors in the brain and body as other opiate drugs, but without producing the euphoria associated with active substance use. It also blocks the effects of other opiate drugs. Methadone can be used both during the early, acute phase of detox, and long-term, as part of an ongoing treatment program. Patients are given their daily dose of methadone at a treatment center, which provides the structure and supervision they need in the early days of treatment. Over time, patients earn the right to take-home doses that allow them to come to the center less frequently.

Methadone maintenance has been shown to reduce drug use and improve quality of life in patients.


Buprenorphine can be given to patients alone under the brand name Subutex, or in a formulation called Suboxone, which is a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone. Currently buprenorphine has only been approved to treat opiate addiction. It works much like methadone—binding to opiate receptors and blocking withdrawal symptoms without producing a high, as well as blocking the effects of other opiate drugs. Since there is a lower potential for misuse with buprenorphine in comparison to methadone, patients undergoing detox and/or medication maintenance with buprenorphine are often allowed take-home doses at the beginning of treatment.


Disulfiram is a medication used in alcohol detox. It helps prevent a return to drinking by making the recovering alcoholic feel sick, or even vomit, if they drink alcohol with the medication in their system. Disulfiram is sometimes prescribed as a maintenance medication after acute detox, to support the patient while they undergo therapy to treat the psychological and behavioral sides of substance use disorder.


This medication is useful for the more extended symptoms of drug and alcohol withdrawal that some people in recovery experience, such as anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia. It is not as widely used as naltrexone, but it does provide an effective alternative for patients who do not respond well to naltrexone, or who are suffering an unusual degree of anxiety resulting from their newfound sobriety.

Why Quitting Cold Turkey Doesn’t Work

Quitting drugs or alcohol “cold turkey” is a massive shock to your system, and can set off a chain reaction in the physically-dependant body. This will not only cause intense drug cravings and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms that impede functioning, but can also have dangerous, even fatal, side effects. Many substances must be slowly tapered over time, because stopping suddenly is far too dangerous.

As a recovering addict’s body struggles to recover a natural balance in sudden abstinence, withdrawal symptoms may include:

Medical Detox

Withdrawal symptoms are monitored and managed in a medical detox program.

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Agitation and restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Sweating, chills, and fever
  • Diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Coma

Medical detox—especially when provided in a medical detox center that provides 24/7 support and supervision—can prevent these symptoms, while providing oversight by medical professionals who can address any serious reactions before the crisis becomes fatal.

Detoxing at home puts you at risk of severe medical complications, including death. Even if you are lucky enough to get through the acute phase of detox safely, relapse and overdose remains a serious risk, and you will most likely have to deal with some serious mental health issues.

Drug Addictions that Should be Treated by a Medical Detox

Ideally, all addictions should be treated with a medical detox. It is the safest way to protect your physical and emotional health, and it drastically cuts down your risk of resuming substance misuse. Even drugs that have unpleasant, but harmless physical withdrawal symptoms—such as cocaine—can become dangerous when the drug has been used in combination with other substances, or if the substance use was masking an underlying health condition that makes your body unable to withstand the stress of detox without medical help.

Addictions to heroin and other opiate drugs are best treated in a specialized medical detox center. Opiate withdrawal symptoms can resemble a severe case of the flu, and the psychological effects can be devastating. Heroin and other opioids damage the reward system in the brain in a way that makes people with substance use disorders unable to feel pleasure, or even function normally, without using. This damage will eventually heal, but it takes time. Only 10% of individuals who attempt to detox without medical help manage to sustain their abstinence long term.

Few people realize that alcohol is one of the most dangerous addictive substances to withdraw from without medical detox. As many as one in four people recovering from alcohol use disorder will suffer an incredibly dangerous withdrawal syndrome called delirium tremens, which includes fever, hallucinations, severe confusion, and seizures. Without treatment, delirium tremens is usually fatal.

Benzodiazepine withdrawal is essentially the same as delirium tremens, and therefore no one addicted to benzos should ever abruptly stop taking their primary substance. They must always slowly and carefully taper their dosage under the guidance of a medical doctor. This process can take weeks, even months, and is far too dangerous to attempt at home.

Call Now

Who Answers?

The Dangers of Detoxing at Home

DIY detox is never a good idea. Not only do you make yourself vulnerable to suffering and health risks that are treatable with medical detox, detoxing at home means you won’t have access to prompt medical treatment in the event of life-threatening complications. Calling 911 or heading to the emergency room takes time you may not have, while the immediate response available through the 24/7 monitoring at a medical detox center could save your life.

Another disadvantage of detoxing on your own, is that you may have relatively easy access to substances at home. Staying inpatient at a residential medical detox center will give you a safe, peaceful, drug and alcohol-free environment that also provides medical, emotional, psychological, and behavioral recovery support. Without this kind of support or protective environment, returning to substance misuse can be easy, and the risk of overdose or alcohol poisoning greatly increases during and after detox. This is because your tolerance has gone down more than you realize. If you attempt to use or drink in your habitual manner, you are likely to have a fatal reaction.

Withdrawal symptoms that may not be fatal on their own can lead to deadly medical complications. Vomiting and diarrhea can make you dehydrated, malnourished, and depleted of electrolytes, which can be fatal, especially in a body already weakened by repeated substance use. People in recovery may also be tempted to self-medicate their withdrawal symptoms or drug cravings—an incredibly dangerous proposition. Without physician oversight, even using a medication that is correct in theory, such as methadone for heroin detox, or naltrexone for alcohol detox, can cause a fatal interaction or overdose.

DIY detoxing can also cause severe depression and anxiety, as well as suicidal thoughts and intent. Antidepressants may be required to stabilize your mood during and after detox. Studies have shown that at about 50% of individuals with substance use disorder and one-third of those with alcohol use disorder also suffer from a co-occurring mental health disorders. Withdrawal can exacerbate these disorders, even leading to severe psychosis that can cause you to hurt yourself or others. Medical detox centers that provide dual-diagnosis treatment can use therapies to heal both the addiction and the mental health issues simultaneously.

Detoxing alone can be fatal. Get the help you need today!

There’s More to Recovery than Detox

Not only does medical detox help people in recovery avoid relapse when they are at their most vulnerable, the counseling and other therapeutic interventions provided at a medical detox center start patients on a path of healing that begins with detox, but continues on for many years, through many other stages of healing.

Detox alone is not a “cure” for addiction. Medical detox merely stabilizes you, so that you can focus on an ongoing treatment plan. Addiction is a chronic, progressive, relapsing disease that requires integrated treatment to manage, and long-term abstinence from drugs and alcohol is a feat that requires extensive self-exploration through counseling, learning and implementing behavioral techniques, and maintaining good healthcare and self-care.

During the first 90 days after you quit using, you are at your most vulnerable to relapse—and also at high risk of overdose due to your newly lowered tolerance. Getting quality, professional addiction treatment from a comprehensive rehabilitation program is crucial during this time. Individual, group, and family counseling can greatly decrease your risk of returning to substance misuse by helping you work through issues and teaching you new ways of coping with stress and conflict. It can help you identify triggers, and learn how to avoid them, as well as what to do when you can’t avoid them.

Peer support groups, whether they be group therapy sessions led by a counselor, or addiction support groups such as 12-step programs, can help you learn by example. These groups can motivate your continued progress by connecting you with others who understand your experiences, and who accept you as part of a larger, supportive community. Even after discharge from a detox treatment program, these free addiction support groups can become a part of an overall way of life that will keep you drug and alcohol-free for good.

Call 866-351-3840(Who Answers?) now to find a medical detox center or addiction treatment program that meets your needs. 

Get Help Today Phone icon 800-654-0987 Info icon Who Answers?