How Does Detoxing from Drugs Work?
Detoxing from drugs can take place in a number of settings, and while it may be tempting to attempt it at home, it may not be your best option. In fact, in some cases, it can be dangerous or even deadly to do so. This page will explore the detox settings that allow you to continue living at home and the situations in which this style of detox may be appropriate and when it isn’t.
Addiction often involves physical dependence, so in order to break the cycle of drug addiction, an individual must first address their dependence and safely get through the acute withdrawal period.
This first phase of treatment is referred to as detoxification and is defined by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) as the process of cleansing the body of the harmful toxins found in drugs such as heroin, Vicodin, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, and other potentially dangerous substances.1
What Does Professional Detox Involve?
- Professional detox involves the implementation of specific medical and psychological strategies to ease the discomfort and dangers associated with drug withdrawal.2,3
- Many addiction treatment professionals recommend that, for the safety of the recovering individual, drug detox take place under the care of a team of trained professionals able to medically manage the withdrawal period.2,3
- Fortunately, medically assisted or medically supervised detox can take place in a number of inpatient and outpatient settings. Additionally, the withdrawal from some substances isn’t as dangerous as others and may be able to be managed with support at home.3
How to Detox from Home Safely
At-home detox should only be performed after a doctor or medical professional has approved the process.3 Someone suffering from a drug or alcohol addiction should never decide to simply try it on their own without medical supervision. Doing so could have serious health repercussions and could be fatal in some situations.2,3
“Someone suffering from a drug or alcohol addiction should never decide to simply try it on their own without medical supervision.”
Professional detox and addiction treatment can help you safely find recovery from your addiction. If you are ready to take the first step, call American Addiction Centers (AAC) now at 1-888-744-0069 or verify your insurance benefits now.
To begin a safe detox, be sure to consult with a medical professional, preferably one with addiction treatment or withdrawal management experience. This specialist can provide a thorough assessment of your status and risks.
In determining an appropriate treatment plan for you, he or she may ask you questions about:2,3
- The type or types of substances you use regularly and whether you are currently intoxicated.
- The frequency, dose, and duration of your use.
- Any preexisting and concurrent mental health symptoms.
- Your physical health/medical history.
- Previous withdrawal and detox attempts.
- How much support you have at home.
Your answers to these questions will help to determine an appropriate level of care.3
- In very limited instances, natural (or “cold turkey”) detox may be an option for a healthy person with no significant physical dependence or with a history of use of a substance not typically associated with dangerous withdrawal symptoms (e.g., hallucinogens, some inhalants). Thorough physician evaluation and full disclosure of one’s substance use history should take place prior to the decision to detox in this manner. Additionally, only people with a lot of support at home and not severely dependent on drugs like alcohol, opioids, or sedatives should consider this option.
- Outpatient detox programs may work well for those whose addictions are somewhat more severe but whose symptoms do not require intense supervision and round-the-clock monitoring only available through a residential or inpatient environment. This option is also good for people who have a lot of family and community support in their recovery, as the recovering individual is able to return home after each treatment session.
- Inpatient programs will be best for those people with a significant history of substance use involving alcohol, heroin, and prescription sedatives and who require round-the-clock medical and emotional support.
Outpatient Medical Detoxification
If during your evaluation, your clinician deems you to be at low risk for a severe or complicated withdrawal, you may be advised to utilize an outpatient detox program. In contrast to more intensive/inpatient treatment programs, outpatient detox can be carried out with regular visits to a doctor’s office or an outpatient treatment center.3
In some cases, a healthcare agency can even come to your home to provide treatment and track your progress.3 Appointments will involve ongoing assessment of your vital signs, your comfort level, and any complaints you may have. Your treatment will be continually tailored to address your symptoms.3
As part of outpatient treatment, the provider will offer support and encouragement to help increase your motivation to continue detox and to prevent relapse.
They may also provide medications to limit withdrawal symptoms, improve comfort, and ease the process overall. 2,3 Medication options used during detox might include those listed below.2,3
Medical Detox for Alcohol
- Benzodiazepines/barbiturates—These are the primary treatment for alcohol withdrawal. The initial effective dose will be tapered over time to reduce the risk of seizures and delirium tremens.
- Anticonvulsants, such as Neurontin.
- Antipsychotics such as Haldol.
Medical Detox for Opioids
- Methadone or buprenorphine. As opioid agonist medications, these medically prescribed treatment drugs are given in controlled doses to ease cravings and minimize withdrawal distress associated with quitting heroin or prescription painkillers.
- Clonidine. More often used in inpatient settings, this medication will only treat certain detox symptoms like high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat.
Medical Detox for Sedatives
- Benzodiazepines/barbiturates. In some cases (for example, if you’re abusing benzo with a short half-life such as Xanax), you may be switched to another that has a longer half-life (such as Librium or Valium) or to the barbiturate, phenobarbital. This will limit the likelihood of dangerous withdrawal effects and increase your comfort. The substance will then be slowly tapered until your body is clear of any sedatives.
- Sedating antidepressants, such as trazodone.
The detox process for other substances may be aided with medications that address the secondary symptoms of withdrawal, like nausea or sleeping problems, with other prescription or over-the-counter medications.3
Natural Detox at Home
Attempting natural detox while in the home is a challenge. However, for those whose withdrawal symptoms are not particularly dangerous and who have reliable family and friends to support them, doing this at home may feel like a desirable option. Detox leaves many people feeling their absolute worst. Going through this difficult period while surrounded by the familiarity of their normal environment and their loved ones may, in the right situation, actually enhance the process, though additional treatment may be needed to maintain sobriety.2,3
Drug cravings can be immensely difficult to resist when withdrawal feels too uncomfortable to handle.
Home detox is only a viable option for certain drugs that don’t produce particularly dangerous withdrawal symptoms. For example, detoxing from low doses of a stimulant like cocaine probably won’t introduce any immediate medical risks, even though it can be physically and emotionally taxing.
Remember, however, that while there may be relatively few expected medical dangers, some unexpected dangers may arise. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there are several medical complications that can occur during detox. An individual may experience nausea and vomiting.
Particularly in scenarios where an altered level of consciousness is a factor, it’s possible they may aspirate on their vomit, which can be fatal. Add that to the risk of relapse, which may be more likely when you’re trying to get clean on your own, and at-home detox may seem like a less attractive option.
Due to the uncomfortable nature of withdrawal symptoms, it’s very common for addicted individuals to return to drug or alcohol use when their withdrawal symptoms start to spike.4 Drug cravings can be immensely difficult to resist when withdrawal feels too uncomfortable to handle. Getting professional support can make a big difference in preventing relapse and making it to the next step of treatment.
If you don’t want any medical intervention, you don’t necessarily have to detox at home. You can do a natural process with the therapeutic support of professionals by going through “social detox” in a structured residential environment.3 This can be a great way to ensure that you have consistent support and that you are set up with some form of therapy (whether inpatient or outpatient) once you’ve completed the process.
Also, remember you can still live at home while going through outpatient detox. You’ll visit the treatment center for care but will return back to go about your daily life. This is a safer option than going cold turkey with no assistance. You’ll have regular
check-ins where your health can be monitored and you’ll have professionals who will provide guidance and support and who will help to set you up with ongoing care.
The Case Against Trying it at Home
At the end of the day, there are many detox needs that can only be fully addressed while under the care of medical professionals. This level of support and supervision is essential if the individual is to avoid the ill effects of drug and alcohol withdrawal.4 As mentioned, relapse is likely, and it can result in overdose and death.
You may also not be prepared for the intensity of the symptoms which can extend into both your physical and mental health. Beyond nausea and vomiting, withdrawal can precipitate potentially life-threatening conditions, such as cardiovascular problems, delirium tremens, and seizures.3, 4
For example, as many as 30% of people detoxing without treatment from sedatives will have a grand mal seizure.4 Among those using substances with potentially lethal withdrawal syndromes, there is no way to unequivocally predict who will be severely adversely affected.
Trying to detox without treatment can also negatively affect one’s mental health, resulting in:3, 4
- Anger and irritability.
- Depression and suicidal thoughts.
- Delusional thinking and paranoia.
Some of these mental health symptoms can be so severe that the person detoxing threatens harm against themselves or others around them, which makes the at-home method very problematic.3, 4 Again, the symptoms will depend on the substance of abuse and your physical and mental health, which is why it is so vital to get a professional evaluation prior to attempting to quit drugs on your own.
Why You Need More
The substance in question, as well as the length and severity of the addiction, will determine what type of detox is most appropriate. Detox is invaluable but only regarded as the first component of substance abuse treatment.1,2 Your initial treatment plan will be done during the intake process at the addiction program to outline a comprehensive course of treatment. This plan should be reassessed throughout your recovery process, making amendments according to the progress you’re making.
People receiving only detoxification are more likely to relapse shortly into recovery.2, 3 It only addresses the physiological consequences of substance abuse. Additional treatment is needed to understand the triggers of use and how to appropriately respond to cravings in the future.2 To ensure the best possible outcomes, complete care including behavioral therapies, support groups, educational/employment services, and community supports is needed.
Drugabuse.com is an American Addiction Centers resource and a leading provider in safe drug and alcohol detoxification. If you’d like to learn more about your available treatment options, including programs that include detox, contact us today at 1-888-744-0069 . You can also use our free and confidential insurance checker below to see if your insurance covers detox at an American Addiction Centers facility.
American Addiction Centers accepts many insurance plans and can work with you on a manageable payment plan.
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