Detoxification from drugs or alcohol is the process whereby the body is forced to break its physical dependence by depriving it of those substances on which it is dependent. We use the word ‘detox’ because the process allows the body to cleanse itself of the drugs and their associated compounds.
Essentially, there are two basic types of detox: medicated and non-medicated. In previous generations, non-medicated addiction detox was the norm. Today however, the medicated method is preferred for a number of reasons.
Medicated detox is considered safer under most circumstances. It is also considerably more comfortable for the recovering addict because withdrawal symptoms are not as severe. Non-medicated detox is still available when the recovering addict prefers it and medical personnel approve it.
How Medicated Detox Works
In a medicated detox scenario, the recovering addict will be given certain medications designed to take the edge off withdrawal symptoms and reduce the risk of physical injury. Let’s talk about the physical injury component first.
One of the main problems with drug and alcohol addiction comes by way of the damage these substances do to the human body. Both tissues and organs can be negatively affected in ways that are not recognised until withdrawal symptoms begin. During withdrawal, the damage caused by drugs or alcohol can cause the body to react in ways that could result in serious injury or death.
As for taking the edge off withdrawal symptoms, this is done to make it easier for the recovering addict to push through rather than giving up before detox is complete. The easier withdrawal can be made, the more likely the addict will complete it.
There are a number of different medications used for detox, depending on the substances being abused and the length of the addiction. While we cannot give you a complete list, here are some of the more common options:
- Methadone – Methadone is one of the more common drugs used for people going through opioid withdrawal. Heroin addicts are primary candidates for methadone treatment. Ideally, the amount of methadone used should be gradually decreased as time progresses.
- Buprenorphine – Buprenorphine is another replacement medication used for people withdrawing from heroin and other opioids. Its main purpose is to reduce the unpleasantness of withdrawal symptoms to make the process easier. Some use it long-term, while others can be off it fairly quickly.
- Diazepam – Recovering addicts addicted to stimulants, like cocaine for example, may be given a drug known as diazepam. This drug is classified as a benzodiazepine; it helps the addict to ‘come down’ a bit more gradually, thus reducing the shock of withdrawal.
- Dexamfetamine – Similar to diazepam, dexamfetamine is used to help those addicted to amphetamines come down more gradually.
- Chlordiazepoxide – This is one of the more popular medications for acute alcohol dependence withdrawal. The drug, and two others like it, allow for a quicker withdrawal without such serious withdrawal symptoms. If a recovering alcoholic is experiencing hallucinations during withdrawal, olanzapine or another drug may be prescribed.
- Acamprosate – Acamprosate is one of three drugs prescribed after alcohol withdrawal is complete. This group of drugs are designed to reduce alcohol cravings and make it physically uncomfortable to drink in the future.
It is important for you to know that any medications used during detox are not intended to be permanent replacements. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. For example, over the years we’ve seen more NHS programmes refer heroin addicts to methadone, only to substitute one drug for another rather than complete the detox process. Spending years on methadone instead of detoxifying and rehabbing does not really do anyone any good.
When an alcohol or drug addict has the constitution to undergo non-medicated detox, he or she will be going ‘cold turkey’. This involves simply interrupting the supply of drugs or alcohol and letting nature take its course. Medical personnel are still on hand to monitor the patient’s health during the process. If a medical emergency arises, it will be dealt with accordingly.
The main advantage of non-medicated detox is that it is quick and thorough. The average addict using the cold turkey method can be completely clean in about seven days, although residual withdrawal symptoms may last for another week or so. When medicated detox is used in the process, it could go on quite a bit longer. Each addict and his or her medical team need to determine which type of detox is best.
Outpatient and Home Detox
Most of the time we think of detox as an inpatient process conducted at a private clinic or NHS facility. Yet more often than not these days, detox is provided on an outpatient basis. As long as the recovering addict has medical clearance, he or she will visit a clinic on a daily basis while receiving prescribed medications. Medical staff will evaluate their progress and watch for any potential medical emergencies.
If a situation arises in which an addict can neither participate in outpatient detox nor afford an inpatient programme at a private clinic, home detox may be the most appropriate avenue. In a home detox scenario, a registered nurse will come and stay at the addict’s residence while he or she withdraws. The nurse will administer medications if they are deemed appropriate.
The detox process is a very personal thing that means different procedures for different people. Alcohol and drug addicts are best served when medical personnel base detox decisions on individual circumstances. That is one of the reasons Addiction Helper prefers to work with clinics that offer bespoke treatments.
If you or someone you love is addicted to alcohol or drugs, it is unlikely the addiction will ever be successfully broken without first going through detox. That is just reality. We would encourage you not to allow the fear of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms to discourage you from seeking out a detox programme. Most people can completely detox in about a week. That is a small price to pay for a better future free of drugs or alcohol.