Medical detox is an essential step in seeking addiction treatment. Withdrawal can be extremely uncomfortable, and it may represent a barrier to treatment for people that are struggling with substance use disorders. With only a fraction of addicted people getting the help they need each year, services that can overcome barriers to treatment are paramount. 

Detox is designed to get you through addiction treatment safely and as comfortably as possible. Even with treatment, some people with withdrawal symptoms are extremely unpleasant, but detox means going through them with the help of medical professionals. 

Learn more about drug detox and how it can help someone with a substance use disorder. 

What is Detox?

The word detox may be fairly familiar in the United States in 2020. It’s used to describe juice cleanses and fad diets. It means purging your system of harmful toxins, right? In the context of medical detox and addiction treatment, ridding your body of harmful toxins is part of it, but it’s not the whole picture. 

When you become dependent on a chemical substance, your body becomes used to the presence of that chemical and adapts your brain chemistry around it. When you stop taking the drug, your brain and body chemistry will become unbalanced, and it will need time to adjust back to normal. This can mean going through some uncomfortable symptoms and side effects in the meantime. 

As you go through medical detox, part of it will be your body purging the drug from your system. However, depending on the drug, it may take a few hours to a few days to clear the drug out of your body, but detox usually lasts between five and ten days. That’s because the problem isn’t over when the drug leaves your system. The problem is your body’s chemical imbalances are still being corrected, even after the drug is gone from your body. 

For instance, alcohol withdrawal can cause dangerous symptoms like delirium and seizures even after a week without drinking. It takes about 12 hours before alcohol can no longer be detected in your blood. It can be detected in urine for three to five days, but it will have very minimal effects on your brain and body by that point. 

Therefore, medical detox is a process that’s designed to help your body recover from chemical dependence safely and as comfortably as possible. 

How Does Medical Detox Work?

Medical detox is a process that involves medical and clinical care for people going through withdrawal. This level of care is also called medically managed intensive inpatient service. Medical management refers to active treatment from medical professionals. Detox involves 24-hours of nursing care and access to physicians that can respond to complications. 

Medical detox is most commonly used to address chemical dependence and withdrawal symptoms. However, detox can also address biomedical conditions and complications that may co-occur with substance use issues. Active drug use is linked to infectious diseases and other health complications that may need to be stabilized in the early stages of treatment. Detox can also address unrelated health issues that might be complicated by withdrawal symptoms.

Detox is also able to address conditions and complications that may need to be addressed in treatment. Severe psychological issues could complicate treatment unless they are addressed early in higher levels of care. 

Medical detox focuses on stabilizing your physical health in the early stages of treatment. That may involve the use of medications to help taper you off of a specific drug or medication that can treat uncomfortable symptoms. Treatable symptoms can involve indigestion, insomnia, depression, anxiety, diarrhea, and others. Though biomedical safety is a primary concern in detox, it’s not the only concern. 

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), this level of care should also have 16 hours of available counseling services each day. You can begin to address your substance use disorder through counseling and therapy sessions in detox.

Do I Need Medical Detox?

One of the first things you will do when you enter an addiction treatment program is to go through a clinical and medical assessment. Doctors and clinicians will evaluate your level of need based on the ASAM Criteria, a list of factors designed to help determine the right level of care for a client. The set of criteria has six dimensions, and the first three deal with high-level needs like withdrawal potential, medical complications, and psychological issues. 

The clearest need for medical detox is recent active dependence on a drug that can cause dangerous withdrawal. The most common cause of dangerous withdrawal symptoms is a central nervous system depressant like alcohol. Alcohol and prescription sedatives can cause seizures, and a condition called delirium tremens during drug withdrawal. Without treatment, alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening. 

Other drugs can cause uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that aren’t usually life-threatening. For instance, opioids can cause flu-like symptoms, while stimulants can cause severe depression and lethargy. 

Medical detox may also be necessary if you have other physical or psychological conditions that may be complicated by withdrawal. For instance, if you have a heart condition, it may be safer for you to go through withdrawal with medically managed treatment.

How Long Does Detox Last?

Hand stopping falling blocks, symbolizing drug detoxMedical detox is intended to take you through the acute withdrawal phase of your recovery. That means the part of withdrawal when you feel the immediate physical and psychological symptoms caused by drug withdrawal. The amount of time it takes for your body to recover from acute withdrawal will depend on several factors, including the type of drug you’re dependent on, the size of your typical dose, and the amount of time you’ve been dependent. 

Generally, medical detox lasts between five to ten days before you’ve passed the acute withdrawal phase. The amount of time you spend in detox will depend on your individual needs and the assessment you go through with medical and clinical professionals. You may still face post-acute withdrawal symptoms after detox. In some cases, psychological symptoms like depression and anxiety can last for months unless they are addressed in treatment. For many people with substance use disorders, detox is only the first stage of treatment.

What’s After Detox?

Detox is an important first phase of treatment for many people, but treatment usually doesn’t end with this level of care. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, medical detox isn’t enough to address the psychological, social, and behavioral issues that are associated with severe substance use disorders. After detox, you may go to the next level of care in addiction treatment that’s appropriate for your needs. 

If you have high-level biological, psychological, or social needs, you may need inpatient or residential services. If you need intensive treatment, but you’re able to live at home, you may move through intensive outpatient treatment. If you only need fewer than nine hours of treatment each week, you may go through an outpatient program. 

Addiction treatment is most effective when it’s tailored to your individual needs. There’s no one treatment plan that’s effective for everyone. Through treatment, you may go through several unique therapy options, including individual, group, or family therapy. Behavioral therapies are common, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, which is used in relapse prevention strategizing. 

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