Medical Detox: What It Is and How It Works

Medical Detox: What It Is and How It Works

Medical detox is the first step in the addiction treatment process of recovery from addiction. This initial phase of the rehabilitation process is typically followed by some type of inpatient or outpatient addiction treatment.

Detoxification is a natural bodily process that can occur for various reasons. These include recovering from an illness or even recovering from a terrible hangover. However, detoxing from excessive use of alcohol and other drugs for an extended period is a different story. This kind of bodily cleansing can be an exhausting process that often needs medical attention. However, it is worth all the time and energy it takes to get clean.

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What Is Medical Detox?

Medical detox is a process in which an individual undergoes withdrawal from alcohol or other drugs with 24/7 medical care. It is designed to help anyone struggling with an addiction manage the symptoms of withdrawal that occur following cessation. This process is essential in keeping patients safe and helping them overcome their physical dependence.

In some cases, withdrawal from substances of abuse can be life-threatening. For this reason, detox facilities and addiction treatment centers provide safe environments for the medical detox process. These types of facilities use medications and other methods to alleviate the withdrawal process. Medically supervised detox is important because addiction can affect many vital organs, including:

What Is the Withdrawal Process?

Withdrawal is the process of ridding your system of alcohol and other drugs. However, the duration of withdrawal symptoms and medications used will vary for everyone. In addition, other factors that contribute to the withdrawal process include:

  • Family addiction history
  • Types of drugs used
  • The quantity of drugs used daily
  • Duration of dependence
  • How frequently you used
  • Physiological makeup, including gender, age, and weight
  • Underlying medical conditions
  • Co-occurring mental conditions

In addition, detox facilities will offer different services. Find The Best Rehabs can help you find an accredited facility[1] that best fits your needs.

Although medical detox will help ease the physical and psychological symptoms of withdrawal, it does not treat underlying environmental, genetic, or behavioral causes of addiction. Instead, it is the first phase in the addiction treatment process and should be followed with educational and therapeutic services providing long-term support.

Who Needs Medical Detox?

When someone uses alcohol or other drugs for a prolonged period, the brain and body become dependent on these substances. They get used to the presence of a substance and adapt to function normally. Over time, the body builds tolerance, which means users have to use higher doses of a drug to feel the same level of effect.

Tolerance is a big contributor to developing dependence. The body begins to require a substance to maintain “normalcy”. When someone suddenly stops using, the body responds negatively. This typically leads to problems like:

  • Headaches
  • Vomiting
  • Fever (in the early stages of withdrawal)
  • Intense drug cravings

These withdrawal symptoms can make it extremely difficult for someone to abstain from an addictive substance. Fortunately, medical detox helps patients get through withdrawal safely. As each day passes, the brain and body relearn how to function without alcohol or other drugs and cravings begin to subside.

In minor cases of dependence, patients may receive supervision and medication on an outpatient basis. In the case of severe dependence, 24-hour medical supervision at an inpatient facility is recommended. No matter the type of medical detox, (NAME) is available to find the one that’s best for your situation.

What Types of Drugs Cause Addiction?

The following drugs can cause dependency and addiction and may require medical detox.

  • Alcohol
  • Opioids (hydrocodone, oxycodone, heroin)
  • Stimulants (crystal meth, cocaine)
  • Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Ativan, Halcion)
  • Prescriptionstimulants (Ritalin, Adderall)
  • Drugs containing THC (marijuana, hashish)
  • Synthetic drugs (K2, bath salts, Spice)

Without medical assistance, detoxing from addictive substances can be both agonizing and dangerous. Medically supervised detox provides a safe environment for withdrawal and increases a patient’s chances of long-term sobriety.

What Is the Medical Detox Process?

Essentially, medical detox is a 3-stage process that includes:

  • Evaluation
  • Stabilization
  • Preparation for addiction treatment (rehab)

Patients may also receive education about addiction, group and individual therapy, and/or 12-step meetings while in detox. However, these are complementary treatments that not all facilities provide during medical detox. You can turn to (NAME) to help you find the most comprehensive medical detox programs.


Evaluation for medical detox typically includes a physical exam, a questionnaire, and screening for co-occurring mental health disorders. Admission specialists will also perform blood, urine, or breathalyzer tests to determine which drugs are in the patient’s system and to what degree. In addition, a therapist may assess a patient’s psychological state and the availability and strength of their support system.


This phase of medical detox involves the discontinuation of alcohol and other drug use under the supervision of health professionals. The primary goal is for the patient to achieve a medically stable condition. These medical professionals may provide medication to alleviate withdrawal symptoms associated with certain drugs like alcohol and opioids. The duration and severity of withdrawal symptoms will vary from person to person. The type of addiction also plays a significant role in stabilization, which can last anywhere from 5 days to 2 weeks.

Preparation for addiction treatment (rehab)

Once the substance or substances of abuse are out of a patient’s system, it’s time to address psychological and environmental contributors to a patient’s addiction. Although the most physically uncomfortable side effects typically occur during detox, there will be mental and emotional challenges following the detox process. During this last phase of medical detox, patients should be educated about the importance of therapy, support groups, and stress management approaches that can greatly increase their chance of maintaining sobriety.

Principles of Effective Medical Detox

Most health care professionals, addiction experts, and public health officials support the medical model of detox. The Substance and Mental Health Services Administration (SMHSA) has compiled a list of principles that apply to effective medical detox. This list incorporates a combination of healthcare, including nursing staff, physician supervision, and medication during the process.

These principles of effective detox include:

  • Detox is an essential part of the continuum of addiction care.
  • Medical detox includes evaluation, stabilization, and preparation for addiction treatment and therapy.
  • Patients should participate in the entire process, regardless of severity of their condition.
  • Medical detox plans should be individualized.
  • Each patient should receive a referral for therapy following detox.
  • Health insurance plans should cover the full range of medical detox services.
  • Services should accommodate culturally diverse needs.
  • Success may be measured by participation and compliance with future treatment.

Medical and Social Models of Addiction Treatment

The social model of detox does not include medical supervision or medication. Instead, it supports emotional and psychological support to help individuals make it through withdrawal. These include 12-step programs and support groups. The social model can play an invaluable role in achieving sobriety, but often can’t replace medical detox.

The majority of addiction treatment centers use a combination of social and medical care. Patients typically attend group meetings facilitated by Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and/or SMART Recovery. In addition, treatment facilities often incorporate alternative practices such as yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and chiropractic care.

Regardless of the model used, SAMHSA has also developed blanket guidelines for effective detox.

These guidelines include:

  • Education about the withdrawal process
  • Inclusion of support systems such as family members, friends, and peer groups
  • Preservation of an alcohol- and drug-free environment
  • Application of motivational enhancement techniques.
  • Developing a therapeutic relationship with the patient.

The medical and social models of detox both emphasize safety and wellness. Other approaches or techniques can be dangerous, despite the best intentions.

How Do I Find a Detox Facility?

Detox centers vary in their specialties and services. Some facilities offer alcohol detox only, while others provide medical detox for a number of drugs. In addition, detox centers may treat different age groups or genders specifically, as well as different religious affiliations or the LGBT community.

The best detox centers will perform thorough evaluations and assessments prior to medical detox. Nurses, physicians, and other certified staff screen for co-occurring mental conditions, underlying medical conditions, and environmental factors that may be contributing to a patient’s addiction. They will also determine the severity of addiction in order to develop a plan specifically designed for each patient’s needs.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, (NAME) is here to help ensure that you begin detox in a facility that best fits your unique needs. You can trust us to guide you through this first step in your journey to recovery. Do not let uncertainty keep you from reaching a goal you can and should have for yourself. Allow those with the tools and knowhow help you take that first step.

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