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Medical detox or medically supervised detox manages dangerous withdrawal symptoms under medical supervision and with the use of medications. Detoxing from some drugs is dangerous and presents a number of potentially fatal medical risks, psychological challenges, and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. Typical withdrawal symptoms may include nausea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, high blood pressure, fast heart rate, tremors, seizures, anxiety, depression, and hallucinations.

The severity of withdrawal symptoms depends on the type of drug, duration of drug use, and underlying medical or mental health problems. Medical detox involves an inpatient setting or hospital setting, providing medication, and medical support to reduce the risks and withdrawal symptoms. Medically supervised drug detox manages extreme and dangerous withdrawal symptoms often associated with alcohol addiction, benzodiazepine addiction, barbiturate addiction, and opioid addiction.

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When is Medical Detox the Best Option?

Cravings and withdrawal symptoms make it difficult for an individual to overcome drug or alcohol addiction. Every drug is different and causes mild or severe withdrawal symptoms. The manifestation of withdrawal symptoms can last days, weeks, or months. Medical detox assists with overcoming dangerous withdrawal symptoms and is the best option for someone addicted to alcohol, opioids, benzodiazepines, or barbiturates.

Alcohol withdrawal, for example, has the potential to be dangerous with daily binge drinking, dependence, and tolerance. Regular drinkers who decide to stop drinking abruptly could experience anxiety, clammy skin, dilated pupils, fatigue, insomnia, seizures, hallucinations, and possibly delirium tremens. Opioid withdrawal can cause anxiety, insomnia, sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, rapid breathing, fast heartbeat, and seizures.

Before being admitted to a medical detox center, the patient is assessed to determine withdrawal severity, mental and physical health, and drug history. Medical detox is the first step. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, drug detox does not constitute substance abuse treatment but is one part of a continuum of care for drug addiction.

How Does a Medically Supervised Drug Detox Work?

Medically supervised detox involves medical supervision and the use of medication to control and ease withdrawal discomfort. Medication is used to help ease withdrawal symptoms, including drug cravings. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration, medication-assisted treatment is the use of medication in combination with counselling and behavioural therapies. MAT is primarily used for the treatment of addiction to opioids but does include alcohol addiction.

The patient is admitted into a hospital or clinical setting as part of a drug rehab center. The individual has access to 24-hour medical care and support during detox and is administered medication when needed to manage withdrawal symptoms. Generally, the detoxification process consists of evaluation, stabilization, and fostering patient readiness for and entry into drug rehab.

Overall, the length of time needed for medical detox is different for each person. Withdrawal symptoms can begin to show within 8 to 12 hours after the last dose of the drug. The severity of symptoms depends on the duration of use, how long the drug remains in the body, individual health, and polydrug use. Withdrawal symptoms can last a few days or weeks, but most symptoms begin to peak within a few days, depending on the substance.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms, for example, tend to emerge within a few hours to several days after quitting or reducing consumption. Long-acting opioid rugs have longer and more delayed withdrawal symptoms appearing two to four days after the last dose and taking longer to dissipate. For most opioid drugs like heroin or some pain medication, withdrawal symptoms emerge within six to twelve hours and subside within five to seven days. Sedative withdrawal symptoms have the potential to be severe and appear within hours after use has stopped. For example, someone addicted to Xanax may experience withdrawal symptoms within six to eight hours after use.

What Are the Alternatives to Medical Detox?

An alternative to a medically supervised drug detox is a social detox, which is a non-medical type of drug detox program. The process involves stopping the use of drugs entirely and going cold turkey while under the care of treatment professionals. The social or clinical detox model involves addiction professionals helping the patient with emotional or psychological support during withdrawal. However, no medication is administered to manage symptoms and complications.

Ultra-rapid detox involves the process of using general anesthesia and medication to initiate withdrawal symptoms. Under anesthesia, the patient is not expected to experience the full range of withdrawal discomfort. Finally, another option involves at-home drug detox, where the patient consults with a medical professional and manages their drug detox at home or on an outpatient basis.

Terminology Associated with Medical Detox

Terms Definitions
Medication-Assisted Treatment or MAT MAT is the process of using medication in combination with evidence-based therapies to manage drug addiction, withdrawal symptoms, and cravings.
Opioid Treatment Programs Opioid Treatment Programs are similar to MAT programs and administer drugs like buprenorphine or suboxone to manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings.


Marcel Gemme, DATS

Marcel Gemme, DATS


on May 10, 2022

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Michael Leach, CCMA

Michael Leach, CCMA

Medically Reviewed

on May 10, 2022

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Michael Leach is a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant, who has over 5 years of experience working in the field of addiction. He spent his career working under the board-certified Addictionologist Dr. Rohit Adi. His experience includes working with families during their loved one’s stay in treatment, helping those with substance abuse issues find treatment, and teaching life skills to patients in a recovery atmosphere. Though he has worked in many different areas of rehabilitation, the majority of his time was spent working one on one with patients who were actively withdrawing from drugs. Withdrawal and the fear of going through it is one biggest reason why an addict continues to use and can be the most difficult part of the rehabilitation process. His experience in the withdrawal atmosphere has taught him that regardless of what approach a person takes to get off drugs, there are always mental and emotional obstacles that need to be overcome. He believes having someone there to help a person through these obstacles can make all the difference during the withdrawal process.