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Drug detox generally refers to the process of removing toxins from the body. Drug detox regarding substance abuse and addiction refers to the period of time the body is processing or metabolizing any drugs and alcohol in the system and begins to clear the toxins. Formal drug detox programs provide treatment to help the patient safely and comfortably clear the body completely of the unwanted substance. Drug detox programs manage withdrawal symptoms and encourage ongoing drug addiction treatment for the individual. Most drug detox programs are part of an inpatient or outpatient drug rehab program.

There are many different forms of drug detox available. Typically, the severity of addiction, medical history, and withdrawal symptoms severity determine what method or type of drug detox is needed. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, drug detox is comprised of three stages. The initial stage of drug detox is the evaluation, which assesses the presence of alcohol and drug through urine, breath, or blood testing. In addition, the individual's current mental health state is evaluated, any existing medical issues are assessed, and the most appropriate detox strategy is determined.

The next step involves stabilization, which is the treatment process during drug detox. The process begins with acclimating the individual to the detox process and providing medical or counselling services to manage withdrawal discomfort. It is important to note that drug detox is not a substitute for treatment and should not be considered a final solution for treating drug addiction. The final stage involves building willingness for further treatment. Withdrawal symptoms are resolved throughout drug detox. During that time, the individual is encouraged to attend drug rehab if the drug detox is not already part of a drug rehab center.

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When is Drug Detox the Best Treatment Option?

Drug detox is the best option for anyone who is struggling with withdrawal symptoms or for someone that requires an initial evaluation period before drug rehab. Drug detox is the recommended initial step for a wide range of drug addiction problems. Overall, some form of drug detox is appropriate for anyone who has developed a drug dependence or addiction. Drug addiction is difficult to overcome, and withdrawal symptoms are a major hurdle and barrier for many addicts. However, drug detox cannot be avoided, and the severity of drug detox depends on the type of drug.

Additionally, the length of time needed in drug detox is different for each person. Overall, there is no set timeframe for detox to be completed. For some individuals, the process may only take hours or days. However, other individuals may require weeks to completely overcome withdrawal symptoms. The length of time needed in drug detox is dependent on the drug of abuse, the rate, dose, and duration of use, the presence of polydrug use, detox setting, goals of the patient, previous detox attempts, and the individual's health.

Drug detox should generally be done within a controlled setting like a medical detox center or standard drug detox program. However, some individuals attempt drug detox at home, which is risky. Complications may arise at any time, and intense cravings and withdrawal symptoms may become too much to manage without help. The process of withdrawing from drugs or alcohol can result in a wide array of symptoms. Common withdrawal symptoms include insomnia, hypersomnia, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, gastrointestinal distress, appetite, agitation, anxiety, depression, strong drug cravings, pain, disorientation, seizure, and coma.

Overall, one of the biggest misrepresentations perpetuated in the addiction recoverin industry is that drug detox is a cure for drug addiction. Drug detox is the first treatment step on the road to completely overcoming drug addiction. However, drug detox does not account for the many psychological and emotional aspects of addiction and drug addiction. When a patient is limited to drug detox, they are increasing the risk of overdose.

What are the Different Drug and Alcohol Detox Programs?

There are two general types of drug detox separated as medically assisted or medically supervised detox and clinically managed or standard drug detox. Medical detox is a type of treatment done under the care of medical and mental health professionals. During the observation period, the patient is assisted in increasing safety and comfort and managing painful withdrawal symptoms and potential medical complications that may result from ending substance use. During medical detox, medications are often administered to ease the process and reduce the strong cravings for the substance that is experienced.

Clinically managed drug detox or standard drug detox is a short-term or non-medical strategy for someone wanting to end drug addiction. All social and standard drug detox programs are different from one another. Social detox programs offer a room for detox to place, while others provide a more hands-on treatment approach. Professional support is offered throughout the entirety of detox. Typically, the best option depends on the substance being used, the current level of physical dependence, and the desire or need of the individual to not use medically assisted techniques.

Medically supervised or assisted drug detox is most appropriate for people with drug addiction involving alcohol, hypnotic or sedative drugs like barbiturates and benzodiazepines, opiates like heroin, and prescription pain medication like oxycodone. Ceasing the use of these substances results in dangerous withdrawal symptoms, and in some cases, withdrawal symptoms pose to be deadly. Medications are used in drug detox to improve comfort and stability and should not necessarily be considered a long-term solution.

For example, benzodiazepines are often administered to someone who is detoxing from alcohol, whereas buprenorphine or suboxone is used to help someone detox from opioids.

Many drug rehab centers promote drug-free living and help patients that have become dependent on addiction management drugs like methadone. The goal should be to become entirely drug-free during recovery. Clinical detox programs do not necessarily administer prescription medication because patients are not usually struggling with dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

Another inpatient drug detox option includes rapid or ultra-rapid detox. The purpose of rapid drug detox is to complete withdrawal as quickly as possible to shorten the total time. During rapid detox, the patient is given medication to speed up the onset of withdrawal. The next step involves using medication to manage withdrawal symptoms and minimize discomfort. Ultra-rapid drug detox involves the patient being put under general anesthesia when withdrawal symptoms are at their peak. When the patient wakes from the anesthetic, most of the withdrawal symptoms have passed.

However, there is a risk with rapid and ultra-rapid drug detox, and prior to any detox, the patient should consult with a medical professional. Some of the risks include the higher intensity of withdrawal symptoms, higher treatment dropout, unnecessary exposure to other pharmaceuticals, worsening psychological symptoms, and unreliable long-term benefits. Overall, drug detox should not be avoided, and it should be the first step that every patient takes before counselling or therapy.

Opioid addiction, for example, requires immediate medical detox and treatment and should not only be managed with detox. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one in twenty patients treated for nonfatal opioid overdose in an emergency department died within one year of their visit, and many died within two days. Approximately two-thirds of these deaths were directly attributed to subsequent opioid-related overdoses.

Are Their Alternatives to Drug Addiction Detox?

The most common alternative to inpatient drug detox is a home detox. Typically, at-home detox is performed after a doctor, or medical professional has approved the process. There are significant risks with at-home detox. When determining a plan for at-home drug detox, it depends on the types of substances used regularly, the frequency, dose, and duration of use. In addition, if there are any pre-existing and concurrent mental health symptoms, medical history, and previous withdrawal and detox attempts.

Another option is outpatient drug detox with the help of medical professionals. During an evaluation, a clinician may determine the patient to be at low risk for severe or complicated withdrawal. At that time, outpatient drug detox could be recommended. Outpatient drug detox is carried out with regular visits to a doctor's office or outpatient treatment center. Under some circumstances, a healthcare agency may visit the home to monitor progress. Patients are provided with support and encouragement and maybe prescribed medication to alleviate withdrawal symptoms.

Overall, substance abuse detox can take place in a range of different settings. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there are five formally recognized situations for substance abuse detox. Level I involves managing detox with a visit to the doctor's office or visits from a home health agency at scheduled intervals. Level II involves drug detox taking place as part of a day program with increased opportunities for treatment.

Level III involves a non-medical or social drug detox setting that stresses the need for peer support and social support. Patients are not experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms but may require some medical support. Level IV is a complete residential drug detox program with 24-hour medical services and supervision. Level V involves a complete inpatient medical detox center offering 24-hour acute care for dangerous withdrawal.

Are There Differences Between Drug Dependence and Drug Addiction?

There is a difference between drug dependence and drug addiction, yet substance abuse detox does manage and treat both problems. Someone can be dependent on prescription drugs, for example, without being addicted. Psychological and physical dependence is common with the long-term use of prescription medication. The patient becomes dependent but is not misusing the medication, increasing the dose, or taking more of the drug. The patient attempts to stop taking the medication but hits a barrier with the withdrawal symptoms, thus requiring drug detox.

Drug dependence is also described as a situation where the person needs to ingest the drug or medication to feel normal and to continue normal everyday functioning. Unfortunately, drug dependence leads to an increased tolerance resulting in the medication dose increasing, making it much harder to stop taking the medication. Tolerance does lead to drug addiction because the individual has built a tolerance and abandons previous interests and relationships.

Drug addiction leads to a loss of control and using the drug despite social, physical, and psychological consequences. Someone who is addicted to drugs is characterized as an individual who illicit or licit substances excessively. The individual finds themselves in dangerous situations and may knowingly jeopardize their health, and may neglect important commitments at school, home, or work. Drug addiction can occur quickly or progresses over the years. However, substance abuse drug detox can manage someone dependent on prescription drugs or someone addicted to licit or illicit drugs.

Terminology Associated with Substance Abuse Drug Detox

Terms Definitions
Medically Assisted Drug Detox Medical detox involves inpatient detox under 24-hour medical supervision. Medical detox uses medication to alleviate withdrawal discomfort and pain. Addiction involving alcohol, opiates, benzodiazepines, and pain medication commonly requires medical detox.
Standard or Clinical Drug Detox A standard or clinical drug detox is an inpatient or outpatient process with some clinical supervision. Patients are typically not experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms and may only require minimal medical supervision.
Medication-Assisted Treatment MAT is the use of medication in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies to provide a whole-patient approach to the treatment of substance abuse. MAT is often part of opioid detox programs.
Rapid Drug Detox Rapid or ultra-rapid drug detox involves the use of medication to experience withdrawal symptoms faster and using other medication to alleviate withdrawal discomfort. Rapid detox also involves the use of anesthetics while the patient experiences withdrawal symptoms.


Marcel Gemme, DATS

Marcel Gemme, DATS


on May 9, 2022

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Sylvain Fournier

Sylvain Fournier

Professionally Reviewed

on May 9, 2022

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