Medical drug detox refers to medical supervision and support after a person stops using certain drugs that create physical dependence. Examples of these drugs include narcotics or opiates, benzodiazepines, and alcohol. Although a doctor can manage mild withdrawal symptoms on an outpatient basis, the most successful medical detoxification programs are inpatient ones. Inpatient detox lasts anywhere from three or four days to two weeks.
Withdrawal symptoms that must be addressed by inpatient programs vary depending on which drug the patient is dependent upon. Common symptoms of opiate withdrawal include severe muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. People withdrawing from benzodiazepines such as Xanax or Ativan may display anxiety, irritability and insomnia. In severe cases of addiction, the benzodiazepine-dependent person may have life threatening seizures. The person who abruptly stops using alcohol may also experience life threatening symptoms such as seizures and high fever. Other alcohol withdrawal symptoms include headaches, sweating, insomnia of “black outs,” rapid heart rate, and insomnia.
Medical detox provides several layers of support for the person withdrawing from drugs or alcohol. Medical detox facilities provide round the clock health care workers to monitor vital signs and address the patient’s most disturbing physical withdrawal symptoms as they arise. Medical treatments may include hydration with IV fluids if the patient is experiencing nausea or vomiting, provision of nutritional supplements and healthy meals if the patient can eat, and supportive medications. The blood pressure medication Clonidine may help a person withdrawing from opiates, for instance, while a mild sedative may calm the delirium tremens (DTs) of the hard core alcohol addict.
An equally important type of support available in medical detox units is emotional support. One of the most prominent and distressing symptoms of withdrawal from drugs and alcohol is an intense craving for the substance. Detox facilities provide one on one counseling as well as support groups to help the newly sober person learn to cope with these cravings. Again, if the cravings become too distressing and are threatening the person’s sobriety, doctors may prescribe a mild sedative.
When choosing an inpatient medical detox unit, the patient needs to remember that not all programs are created equal. For instance, most experts strongly advise people who are dependent on narcotics to steer clear of any program that offers rapid detox treatment. In rapid detox treatment, doctors sedate the patient to the point of unconsciousness and inject a combination of powerful opiate-blocking drugs. Although this procedure may sound promising to the opiate-dependent person who is afraid of going through withdrawals, it is very hard on the body and carries serious health risks, including the risk of death. Most rapid detox programs also make no provision for the follow up support and treatment which is vital to maintain sobriety.
Done correctly, however, inpatient drug and alcohol detox programs can help make the symptoms of withdrawal much more bearable. After detoxification, doctors usually recommend that the patient seek inpatient or outpatient drug rehabilitation to receive emotional support as he or she copes with sobriety and to learn strategies for remaining sober.