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The first step towards sobriety for most in recovery is detox, where the body is cleansed of the substances that are polluting it.

Substance Abuse Detox

Detox, also known as detoxification, is the first stage in the recovery process for most drug and alcohol addictions. The detox process purges the body of addictive chemicals, allowing patients to stabilize their physical and mental health in order to transition to either an inpatient or outpatient treatment program.

During detox, the patient either stops using the substance or substances to which they’re addicted or gradually reduces their dose (known as tapering) under medical supervision. This results in their body experiencing withdrawal, a painful, uncomfortable, and often terrifying series of symptoms ranging from cravings to hallucinations. In some cases, withdrawal symptoms such as seizures can even cause death, meaning that proper medical supervision is critical. This is especially true for Alcohol, Barbiturate, Benzodiazepine, and Opioid detox. During withdrawal, medical intervention is often necessary to keep the patient safe and comfortable. Some of the most common interventions include medication and therapy.

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Types of Detox

While there are many variations, there are three general types of detox.

Medical Detox

A medical detox may or may not involve medications, depending on which substance or substances were used, the symptoms of withdrawal the patient is experiencing, psychological symptoms, and physical health issues. Some facilities use the term “medical” to refer to staying in a clinical setting where medications can be administered for mild withdrawal settings as well. Medical detox is most commonly done in an inpatient setting but can also be done on an outpatient basis as well.

Inpatient Detox

In inpatient detox, patients reside at a facility where they will receive constant supervision. This is considered the safest way to detox from many drugs, especially alcohol, Benzodiazepines, Barbiturates, and Opioids. It is also the most likely to be successful. The patient’s medical team choose the best course of treatment for each patient depending on the severity of the their addiction.

Outpatient Detox

Outpatient detox allows patients to detox while still residing at home. Some facilities offer outpatient detox; however, studies show that the highest rate of relapse is for patients who do not reside at the facility where detox is administered. It is wise to choose inpatient detox or inpatient medical detox in order to enhance the probability of long-term sobriety.

How Does the Detox Process Work?

The exact detox process will vary significantly between patients. Factors that influence detox include:

  • Which substances the patient is addicted to
  • How long the patient has been addicted
  • The severity of the addiction
  • Underlying mental health conditions
  • Any additional medical problems
  • Drug allergies
  • Local laws
  • Facility-specific policies and procedures
  • Patient age
  • Any co-occurring mental health conditions
  • The amount of support the patient has
  • Motivation level

Despite these differences, there are some broad similarities. A typical detox process will follow these general stages:

Early stages

Early Stages Of Detox

During the first few hours, symptoms tend to be mild. However, they quickly worsen as the amount of drugs in the body decreases. Within a day or two, they usually will reach peak levels. Medication is not generally required at this point, although it may be prescribed proactively. Initial patient assessments are often conducted at this point.

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Peak Stages

Peak Stages Of Detox

The first few days of detox are generally the worst. This is when symptoms are at their peak and therefore most severe. By this point, all or most of the drugs have left the patient’s body, leaving it unable to function properly. The symptoms that occur at this point are mostly the result of the body struggling to cope with the loss of the drugs. For many, this is the stage most likely to lead to relapse as many patients find it almost impossible to cope. Medication use is generally most prevalent at this stage. Some facilities begin therapy and other forms of treatment at this stage, depending on the patient’s condition and ability.

Weakening Stages

Weakening Stages Of Detox

As the body slowly becomes accustomed to the lack of drugs in its systems, withdrawal symptoms generally decrease or weaken. This generally occurs within a few days to a week after detox begins. For some addictions, especially alcohol, this is often the most dangerous part of detox, because it is when some of the most severe symptoms set in. Relapse is somewhat less common during this stage because individuals have already been through the worst part and are beginning to see improvements in their condition. Medication use is typically tapered off or ceased at this point. Many facilities begin to introduce other forms of treatment such as therapy at this point.

Final Stages

Final Stages Of Detox

For most patients, detox will end between 5 and 14 days after it begins. By this point, symptoms have usually lessened to the point where the patient is capable of leaving the detox facility and entering residential treatment (in the case of inpatient rehab). Some patients may experience post-acute-withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), whereby certain symptoms of withdrawal persist, usually in a weakened form, for up to a year. Detox medication is usually ceased at this time, and patients begin to become much more heavily involved in such treatments as therapy and 12-step groups as their mind and body begin to heal.

Why Can’t I Detox on My Own?

There are four primary reasons why unsupervised detox is extremely inadvisable. It is dangerous, uncomfortable, less likely to be successful, and it reduces the likelihood that the patient will try detox again.


There is real danger associated with detox. Some symptoms, such as hallucinations, will cause the patient to act in unpredictable and dangerous ways, potentially resulting in injury. Others, such as seizures associated with delirium tremens, can actually cause death. Medical supervision keeps the patient safe.


Detox can be an intensely painful and unpleasant process. Medical supervision and intervention, such as the use of certain painkillers or specially designed equipment, can make these negative consequences much less severe. Most patients find that the increased comfort associated with supervised detox makes a tremendous difference, both in their ability to get through withdrawal and in their mental state once they begin other treatments.

Reduced Likelihood of Success

Patients are significantly more likely to complete supervised detox than unsupervised detox. There are a number of reasons for this, including increased comfort, better safety, having a support system, the love and connection provided by medical providers, and increased motivation. Once a patient gets through detox, their eventual likelihood of successfully obtaining sobriety often goes up dramatically.

Reduced Likelihood the Patient Will Try Again

Those who have experienced withdrawal often state that it is one of the most difficult things they have ever endured. This is especially true of unsupervised withdrawal. Patients who have previously tried to detox themselves without medical supervision often simply cannot handle it and relapse almost immediately. However, they remember the pain that they experienced, without gaining any reward other than feelings of failure, and they are much less likely to make an attempt to get sober again out of fear.

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Detox Treatments

There are many treatments available to help patients get through detox. Some of the most common include:

  • Medication-assisted therapy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Meditation
  • Spiritual and faith-based therapy
  • Constant medical supervision
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Acamprosate
  • Disfulfiram
  • Clonidine
  • Naloxone
  • Suboxone
  • Methadone

Do You or a Family Member Need Detox?

Alcoholism and drug addiction can have truly devastating consequences for addicts and their loved ones. The suffering caused by withdrawal symptoms can also be quite devastating, to the point where it is a major deterrent for those who realize that they need to find sobriety. However, medically supervised detox can greatly reduce the severity of withdrawal and make it a much more endurable experience. More importantly, detox is a necessary step in your transformation from a life of addiction to a life of purpose and passion.

If you or someone you know needs detox in order to begin the journey to sobriety, contact a treatment provider today.

What are you struggling with?

There are many different forms of addiction. Get the information you need to help you overcome yours.

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(877) 648-4288