Whether you're addicted to crack, heroin, cocaine, prescription pills, booze, or any other substance of abuse, the first step to recovery is checking in to an alcohol or drug detox facility.
These programs will help you weather the uncomfortable and often unbearable withdrawal symptoms that occur while you're getting clean. But beyond that, they'll also keep you safe from any dangerous or even life-threatening complications that may arise along the way.
And despite just how essential this type of treatment is for long-term sobriety, many addicts don't even make it to this point in their recovery.
In fact, a 2016 survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that of the almost 20 million Americans that met the clinical criteria for a substance use disorder, around 17.7 million didn't receive treatment at all. Plus, 16.9 million of them didn't think they had a problem at all!
So, whether you're actively researching what to look for in a drug or alcohol detox program or you're just curious because you think you may be addicted, simply getting to this point means your closer to recovery than millions of others.
It's normal to have questions about drug and alcohol detox, particularly if you've never really thought about going to addiction treatment before. We'd like to address many of the common questions people ask, and we hope that our answers will help you make the choice to get professional help and to put your mind at ease about what you can expect during this crucial phase of recovery.
Over the course of your addiction, you’ve probably heard the terms “alcohol detox” and “drug detox” thrown around a couple of times, but maybe you aren’t quite sure what’s involved.
So, let’s clear up the confusion.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:
Detoxification is the process of allowing the body to rid itself of a drug while managing the symptoms of withdrawal. Detox alone is not treatment, but is often the first step in a drug treatment program. Treatment with behavioral therapy and/or a medication (if available) should follow detox.
Essentially, then, detox serves as both the first step towards recovery and as a way to manage the uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal that occur along the way.
For the most part, these withdrawals are caused by the body re-adapting to life without your substance of abuse.
To explain, as you became addicted, your body made real physical changes along the way. Certain cell receptors grew or died off, chemicals became less or more potent, and your body grew more tolerant of your substance of abuse as a result.
And because of those changes, your substance abuse becomes normalized.
But once you remove that substance abuse from your habits, your body can’t function normally anymore because of those physical changes. Consequently, you experience a host of uncomfortable and downright painful side effects as your body gets back to normal.
These are withdrawal symptoms.
And one of the main functions of a professional drug or alcohol detoxification program is to make sure that you remain as safe and comfortable as possible as your body progresses through them.
While detox is an incredibly important part of the recovery process, it certainly isn’t the only step involved. In fact, NIDA points out that while detox is vital, when it's used as the only part of a treatment plan it does little to change future drug and alcohol abuse.
Rehabilitation Programs – While detoxification focuses on healing the body from the damages caused by addiction, rehabilitation is aimed at getting the mind back in order. And while an unfortunate amount of people think that this aspect of recovery isn’t as important as alcohol or drug detox, the truth is that rehab might even be more critical for long-term sobriety.
That’s because just like in the body, addiction causes real physical changes in the brain. According to NIDA, “brain imaging studies of people with addiction show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision making, learning and memory, and behavior control.”
And it takes a lot more work to reverse or properly cope with these changes in the mind than just getting through the withdrawal symptoms.
A rehabilitation will use a combination of individual counseling, group talk sessions, behavioral therapies, and more to help you truly dive deep into your addiction. Only then can you change your patterns of thinking and behavior that led to your compulsive substance abuse.
Aftercare Programs – While many people do tend to call it quits after rehabilitation, the truth is that recovery doesn’t stop here. There’s still one step left – aftercare.
Detox is focused on healing the body from addiction. Rehab is concerned with healing the mind. And with aftercare, it’s all about maintenance. And like the other steps involved, aftercare is also absolutely critical.
That’s because like other chronic diseases, addiction to drugs and alcohol comes with a significantly high rate of relapse. In general, experts put it at around 40 to 60%. However, certain drugs do have higher rates.
Heroin relapse, for example, has been cited as occurring in as much as 91% of long-term abusers. Others like psychedelics might be much lower.
Aftercare programs like 12 step meetings or outpatient treatment help keep your addiction in the front of your mind so you won’t be tempted to use again once the sober glow from rehab has worn off.
Don’t be misled – no matter what kind of facility you check into or how much money you pay for experimental and complex treatments, the fact is that detoxification can be tough.
Extremely uncomfortable physical symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and tremors can persist for days at a time. Psychological effects like depression, irritability, and anxiety can leave you sleepless and miserable almost every night. And to top it all off, some people still feel symptoms for months after they’ve finally checked out of treatment.
You’ll find the most common symptoms of withdrawal listed below for the four major classes of drugs: opioids, alcohol, stimulants, and benzodiazepines.
Similar to how withdrawal symptoms won’t be the same for everyone, the exact duration of individual detox processes is going to vary from person to person.
Some people may start feeling like their old selves within a few days. Others might have to endure weeks of withdrawals. It all depends on a number of different factors including:
As you can see, there’s quite a bit at play here. And that can make it tough to narrow down exactly how long you’ll be going through withdrawals. However, below you’ll find an estimate of your withdrawal timeline based on what type of drug you’ve been abusing.
It’s worth remembering here that these are in no way definitive and are simply the average alcohol and drug detox timelines.
When you detoxify from alcohol and drug addiction, you may end up going through what’s known as Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, also known as PAWS. PAWS is a relatively rare condition where recovering addicts continue to experience symptoms of withdrawal long after the average timeline.
In some cases, these symptoms may end up lasting weeks, months, or even years at a time.
As you might imagine, many recovering addicts find it difficult to push through these symptoms, especially when they’re plagued by them for such a long time.
And while there are some medications that may be able to help PAWS for certain types of addictions (e.g., naltrexone and Antabuse for alcohol, possibly naltrexone, buprenorphine, and methadone for opioids), the only proven method of dealing with this condition is education.
And sometimes simply knowing that symptoms will in fact pass is enough to keep you pushing on.
The short answer here is NO.
Going through detoxification can be an incredibly distressing process. And even if you think you’re prepared for at-home drug or alcohol detox, the truth is that it’s often far more uncomfortable than you can ever anticipate.
When you partner with a professional detox facility, though, you’ll have treatments and therapies that will not only reduce the severity of your symptoms of withdrawal but will also shorten the amount of time you have to go through them too.
And that means your likelihood of staying clean and avoiding relapse is going to be far higher.
To explain, some drugs can actually have deadly symptoms of withdrawal. In fact, there are three: alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opioids. And if you decide to go through detox on your own for any of these substances, you’re actually risking your life.
At-home detox, then, isn’t just making recovery less likely, it’s also putting you in very real danger.
Let’s take a closer look at why detoxing from these three kinds of drugs can end up being deadly in some cases.
Alcohol – Alcohol is famous for its ability to reduce anxiety, eliminate inhibitions, and bring on feelings of tranquility and well-being. One of the main ways it does that is by interacting with a specific chemical in the brain called GABA. But when someone develops alcoholism, it can throw off the balance of GABA and other brain chemicals.
During alcohol detox, this imbalance gets even worse and, in some cases, causes two very dangerous conditions: delirium tremens and life-threatening seizures. And without proper medical attention, both of these can be quite deadly.
Benzodiazepines – Like alcohol, benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium can also boost the potency of GABA. And also like alcohol, quitting these drugs cold turkey can throw the brain into a state of over-excitation resulting in deadly grand mal seizures.
As a result, most benzodiazepine detoxes will require patients to taper off of these drugs, taking lower and lower doses over time in order to reduce the risk of seizures.
Opioids – Opioids can have deadly withdrawals for a bit of a different reason. This type of drug is notorious for building up tolerance extremely quickly. In fact, researchers have found that tolerance can develop within just a few hours of taking high doses of opioids.
However, tolerance also tends to drop especially fast with opioids. As a result, an addict that ends up relapsing on the same dose they got high on just a week earlier are at an especially high risk of accidental overdose. And that, of course, can be deadly.
While alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opioids are the only drugs with directly deadly withdrawals, that doesn’t mean that your life is only at risk when you detox from one of these three. In fact, serious complications can arise with almost any drug withdrawal.
These complications may include:
Not all detox facilities are going to approach treating withdrawals the same way. And in that same vein, each treatment isn’t going to be right for just anybody. One of NIDA’s 13 principles of effective treatment even points out this fact directly.
That’s why it’s so important to recognize and understand the treatment philosophies of a detox facility. In general, there are two main types: medicated detox programs and holistic detox programs.
In a medicated program, your withdrawal symptoms will be treated by a host of prescription medications.
While it might be tempting to choose a medicated program for your detox, there are definitely a few downsides. First off, many of these drugs have their own long list of uncomfortable side effects. Added to that, some of these medications can be quite addictive on their own.
The medications you’ll be given will depend on your substance of abuse. Below you’ll find some of the most common medications used for each drug type and a short description of what they are and how they can help.
While some alcohol and drug detox programs utilize medication as a way to repress withdrawal symptoms, others rely on a holistic philosophy of treatment.
These types of treatment protocols focus on supporting the body naturally during the detox process rather than using a battery of prescription medications to treat withdrawals.
As it turns out, the body is already pretty good at detoxing on its own. But after months and years of addiction, it needs a little help along the way to get back into the swing of things.
Nutritional Therapy – The nutritional component is important because your body needs certain vitamins and minerals in order to function properly, and most people don't get them when they have an addiction.
It's possible that you've noticed that you tend to "feed" your hunger with drugs and/or alcohol. Or maybe when you do eat, you choose foods that are quick and easy to prepare, but not exactly nutritionally sound. Over time, this can add up to malnourishment and even health complications that could cause permanent damage.
One condition known as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, for example, is common in alcoholics and causes a permanent inability to form new memories. And it’s caused by a simple thiamine (B1) vitamin deficiency which can be found in beef, nuts, oranges, pork, eggs, and countless other foods.
With a professional alcohol and drug detoxification program, you’ll be put on a nutrition-rich meal plan that will support your body and provide it with the essential compounds it was so desperately lacking. Added to that, the improved nutrition will also help support it as your body recovers and may even make your withdrawals shorter and less intense.
Exercise Regimens – Physical exercise is another important component of alcohol and drug detox that's vital to your success in overcoming addiction. As you exercise, a lot of the toxins that have built up from your addiction will leave the body through sweat, which is why it's so important to get started with a good physical fitness regimen as soon as you decide to quit.
But there are other benefits to exercise during drug and alcohol detox too. For one thing, exercise is associated with an astounding number of both mental and physical benefits. It can help treat serious psychological withdrawals like depression and anxiety, it can boost your energy levels and counteract fatigue, and it can even improve your immune system too.
Part of what makes exercise so great during detoxification is the fact that it releases a host of “feel good” chemicals like serotonin and endorphins. These chemicals can make the world seem a little bit brighter during the particularly trying times associated with detox.
Added to that, exercise also gives patients a welcome relief from the constant thoughts of addiction running through their heads. In this sense, it can serve as a healthy way to redirect their frustration or, at worst, it can just be a distraction.
Either way, exercise’s ability to detoxify the body, improve mood and cognition, and give your mind a break from the stress of recovery makes it an essential part of any alcohol or drug detox program.
Supplementary Treatments – Last but not least, a holistic detoxification program will also likely feature a number of supplementary treatments and therapies as well. While nutrition and exercise will probably be the main focus, some programs will use activities like yoga or mindful meditation sessions to help you regain some self-control and soothe your racing mind.
But it isn’t just “spiritual” activities like these that detox programs will incorporate. Many will often use other well-researched and evidence-based behavioral therapies like Motivational Enhancement Therapy or Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy as well.
There are plenty of other possibilities when it comes to which behavioral treatments your chosen program will use but, in the end, each one of them will help make withdrawals easier to bear and sobriety simpler to maintain.
Detoxing from alcohol and drugs in a professional environment includes both of the above components (diet and exercise). But there’s more to detox than just those alone.
A Commitment to Stop Using – One of the most important aspects of a drug or alcohol detox program is the fact that they can keep you from turning back to using when your willpower fails. And no matter how in-control you may think you are right now, almost everyone going through withdrawals is overwhelmingly tempted to relapse at one point or another.
The professional staff at a detox facility will ensure that you will not relapse during the program, even by restraining you if necessary. And while you may be furious at the time, there’s no doubt that you’ll appreciate the sobriety that comes from it.
Increasing Your Water Intake – An often-overlooked benefit of a professional detox program is the fact that the staff there will help you attend to some very fundamental needs. Proper hydration, for instance, is critical when it comes to getting through the worst of your drug and alcohol withdrawals in one piece.
That’s because water not only helps flush out dangerous toxins from your system, it also helps make everything your body does far more effective and far more efficient. And that means a shorter, more comfortable detox process.
Get Professional Support – The expert staff at a detox facility for alcohol and drugs know about withdrawals. They know exactly what to expect, how long they’ll last, and, most importantly, how to make them far more manageable along the way.
When you go through detox at home, you miss out on all that that expertise has to offer. And not only can that mean you’re far more likely to end up relapsing (which certainly isn’t the end of the world), it also means that you could be putting yourself at risk for some very uncomfortable and very deadly complications.
Medical Support – By far the most obvious benefit of a professional detoxification program is that you’ll have medical staff monitoring you as you progress through withdrawals. The detox process can be quite hazardous – seizures, dehydration, malnutrition, and other complications are all possible.
Medical monitoring will ensure that you’ll be attended to should any threats to your safety arise during this time. It could even end up saving your life!
Get Peer Support – As we’ve seen, choosing to quit using drugs or alcohol on your own is undoubtedly dangerous. But beyond that, it can also be quite lonely. You may feel like your friends and family don’t really understand what you’re going through. Or maybe you don’t have anyone at all cheering you on towards recovery.
In a professional alcohol or drug detox program, you’ll be surrounded by people in the exact same boat as you. They’ll be able to truly empathize with your situation on a fundamental level. And that means they can offer a different kind of support that may end up being much more meaningful.
Whether or not you have this kind of support could be the factor that separates you from recovery or relapse.
Get in Touch with Your Spiritual Side – If you subscribe to a faith, some detox programs offer programs that use this spirituality to help individuals persevere through the toughest withdrawals. The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, suggest tapping into a higher power to aid in recovery.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that just because you don’t believe in a specific religion or any religion at all doesn’t mean that detox for alcohol or drugs won’t work for you. The overwhelming majority of recovery programs are open to individuals of absolutely any religion, belief system, or creed.
One of the biggest reasons to go to alcohol and drug detox prior to any other type of addiction treatment is that it's the safest way to stop using. At Northpoint Washington, we recognize the importance of breaking the physical addiction to drugs and alcohol prior to starting any type of rehab program. That's why detoxification is such a vital part of what we offer.
Sobriety is possible – and we can help.
If you'd like to learn more about alcohol and drug detox at Northpoint Washington, please contact us today.