Typically, if you have a substance addiction or physical dependence, you must stop your drug or alcohol intake as a condition of enrollment in a treatment program. Unfortunately, in an addicted or physically dependent person, a rapid halt to substance intake will trigger a group of symptoms known collectively as withdrawal. In some cases, withdrawal symptoms are unpleasant, but not life-threatening. However, withdrawal from certain substances (including alcohol) can potentially produce severe or fatal complications. Even in the absence of serious health risks, people going through withdrawal face a heavy temptation to return to active substance use and bring an end to their physical and mental symptoms. The goal of medically supervised drug detox (detoxification) is to help you avoid the worst effects of withdrawal and prepare for active participation in a substance treatment program.
Evaluating Your Condition
The first step in the medical detox process is an evaluation of your current condition. This is critically important as extended periods of substance dependence/addiction can significantly alter the normal function of your brain and body. During your evaluation you will receive an assessment of your nutritional status, general health, and specific medical issues. You will also undergo testing designed to verify the types of substances present in your bloodstream. The substances you consume will have a direct effect on the types of withdrawal symptoms you experience, as well as the nature of your detoxification program.
If you experience mild to moderate symptoms of substance withdrawal, you may be suitable for placement in an outpatient detox program. In this type of program, you receive treatment for your withdrawal during the day, but sleep in your own home at night. Depending on the substance at the root of your symptoms, your treatment may include medications designed to ease the severity of the withdrawal process. For example, a person going through mild to moderate alcohol withdrawal may receive any one of a number of sedative medications. A person going through mild to moderate opioid/opiate withdrawal may receive a course of treatment centered on the use of an opioid replacement medication such as buprenorphine, or the use of the non-opioid medication clonidine. Additional outpatient treatments may include oral or intravenous (IV) fluids, nutritional supplementation and over-the-counter pain relievers.
If you experience moderate to severe symptoms of substance withdrawal, medically supervised detoxification will likely take place in a hospital or a residential facility equipped to carry out the detox process. Inpatient treatment gives doctors the ability to constantly monitor vital functions such as your heart rate, blood pressure, electrolyte levels and core body temperature. In cases of severe alcohol withdrawal, detox in an inpatient facility also gives doctors the opportunity to monitor the presence of the potentially fatal complication known as delirium tremens (the DTs). A person experiencing the DTs or other severe alcohol-related symptoms may be sedated throughout the process of detoxification. Inpatient care for detoxifying individuals may also include the same types of medications administered during outpatient detox, as well as IV fluids.
Additional Services During Detox
While going through medically supervised detoxification, your main focus will be purging drugs or alcohol from your system and preparing yourself for active participation in substance treatment. You may also have access to additional services in an outpatient or inpatient program. Examples of these services include counseling and classes designed to educate you on the physical and mental effects of drug and alcohol addiction. In addition to keeping you from feeling isolated during the detox process, these activities help prepare you for the challenges of substance treatment and recovery and help make those challenges seem less threatening.
Completion of medically supervised detox is the beginning of establishing a substance-free lifestyle, not the end. However, when conducted properly, the detoxification process greatly increases your chances of ultimate success with drug or alcohol abstinence.