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Drug And Alcohol Detox Centers

John Schaffer, LPCC

Medically reviewed by

John Schaffer, LPCC

February 1, 2019

Drug and alcohol detox centers provide recovering individuals with a safe space in which to complete the detoxification process. While not all individuals will need to attend, detox centers can provide a welcoming environment with access to the medical care and support necessary to detox safely and efficiently.

What Is Detox?

Drug and alcohol detox centers provide recovering individuals with a safe space in which to complete detoxification. Detox is the process by which addicted individuals rid their bodies of drugs or alcohol. Each individual will experience detox differently from the next. Factors which affect detox include which drug/substance was abused, for how long, how much was abused, and in what way. Learn more today.

Detox is the process by which addicted persons rid their bodies of drugs or alcohol. People who have become dependent on certain substances will need to detox or cleanse, their bodies of these substances to get back to a normal, functioning state so they can move on to formal addiction treatment.

Detox also allows a person to safely manage their withdrawal symptoms; withdrawal is what people experience when they have become physically dependent on a drug then remove it from their system.

Each person will experience detox differently from the next. Some factors which affect this experience include which drug/substance was abused, for how long, how much was abused, and in what way.

Which Drugs Cause Withdrawal?

While many drugs cause some form of withdrawal, some cause more severe, or even life-threatening or fatal, symptoms. The following substances are the ones which most commonly cause severe or uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms:


People with alcoholism are likely drinking heavily on a daily basis, which means when they try to remove alcohol from their life, they will experience some harrowing symptoms. Even people with moderate to severe abuse of alcohol will likely experience withdrawal symptoms when quitting alcohol use. People who have abused alcohol for a long period of time may also experience a severe form of withdrawal, called delirium tremens, which can cause seizures, fever, and severe confusion.


Amphetamines include prescription medications, like Ritalin or Adderall, and are similar in composition to methamphetamine, which is both a prescription and illicit drug. Stimulants such as these work to increase functions in the central nervous system, and removing these drugs can cause a number of adverse withdrawal symptoms, including insomnia, fatigue, and extreme agitation. Withdrawal from methamphetamine can cause hallucinations and psychosis.

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Withdrawal from benzodiazepines is largely affected by the drug of abuse (different prescriptions carry different potencies), dosage, and duration of abuse. Symptoms can range in severity, the worst of which may include seizures, tremors, anxiety, and dysphoria. The most severe form of withdrawal may occur in people abusing high doses of short-acting benzodiazepines, such as diazepam (Valium).


Cocaine is a stimulant drug which causes rapid bouts of euphoria (“highs”) when abused, followed by extreme “low” periods. Cocaine withdrawal symptoms may be milder in comparison to that of other drugs of abuse, but cravings for the drug and depression may continue for months after stopping the use of it.


Opioids include illicit drugs like heroin and combination drugs, like fentanyl-laced heroin, as well as prescription opioids, such as oxycodone (OxyContin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin). Withdrawal from opioids can be extremely uncomfortable as the drugs can be highly potent and cause addiction quickly, meaning it’s both harder to withdraw from them and harder to keep from relapsing once a person has completed detox.

How People Detox From Drugs And Alcohol

Detox is essentially a natural process. Each time a person takes any substance, their body has a process for using and/or getting rid of it. The body employs the liver, blood, kidneys, digestive system, and other organs to process a substance and relieve the body of any waste.

Drugs and alcohol, and especially heavy or frequent use of them cause this process to fall apart. The body can still only handle so much of a substance at any given time, and what’s left over can cause any number of effects on a person’s health.

For these reasons, a medical detox is often necessary. Within a medically-supervised detoxification program, a person will receive complete medical care during their detox phase. This care includes:

  • access to medication to help ease withdrawal symptoms
  • support in tapering off the use of substances
  • monitoring of vital signs, such as heart and breathing rates
  • access to emergency medical care, should it become necessary

Within drug and alcohol detox centers, a person may choose (with the help of their clinicians) to enroll in a rapid detox program. This can only be accomplished with daily, round-the-clock monitoring, as a person in a rapid detox program will be sedated and given medication to alter and lessen the more severe effects of withdrawal.

Some people do elect to quit “cold turkey”, or without medical help, from home. This can be dangerous for people with a severe physical dependence to a drug which causes life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, such as benzodiazepines or alcohol.

Another method of detox includes tapering or slowly weaning off the use of a substance. Tapering is a useful method for powerful drugs, such as certain prescription opioid medications. In fact, failing to taper such a substance during the detox phase, or replace the substance’s effects with a medication such as Suboxone or methadone, can increase the chance of relapse.

Finally, there also exist at-home detox kits, which claim to help people detox faster and more efficiently. However, there is no evidence to support that these kits either work at all or help a person detox faster, and wasting time trying these kits before getting the true help a person needs can be dangerous.

Inpatient Vs. Outpatient Detox

What’s the difference between inpatient and outpatient detox programs? In an inpatient detox program, a person will generally attend a drug or alcohol rehab facility for the duration of their detox phase, which is often followed by an addiction treatment program at the same facility.

In outpatient detox, a person attends treatment sessions for a number of days per week and a specified number of hours per day for an extended period of time, excluding weekends.

Deciding which form of a detox program is best for an individual depends on a number of personal factors. Before entering any program, it’s a good idea to have a full clinical assessment to determine some of these factors.

Outpatient detox tends to work best for someone who is just falling into addiction and whose addiction can be termed light to moderate in severity. People who have been abusing a substance for years, who have a strong physical dependency to it, or who have tried to quit before and relapsed, are more likely to succeed in an inpatient detox program.

What Happens In An Inpatient Detox Program?

Methods of detoxing which do not include medical supervision are risky, and these methods may not appeal to someone who is both serious about getting sober and who values the best chance at staying safe during the detox phase. Inpatient detox programs provide patients with access to medical detox services, serious medical care when needed, and constant medical support.

Before a method of treatment can be decided, the treatment team has to evaluate each individual to determine:

  • drug or drugs of abuse
  • how long the person abused each drug
  • dosages/intake method of drugs
  • when the last dose was taken
  • if and when the person has tried to beat addiction before
  • the outcome of past recovery attempts

Some people may need nutritional support, as severe addiction can cause a person to neglect their health. In this case, a person might need replacement of fluids, electrolytes, or certain vitamins and nutrients.

Detox causes both physical and psychological symptoms, depending on the drug of abuse and the person who abused it. During the medical detox program, the treatment team will constantly monitor both the physical and mental health of a person being treated to ensure that their individualized program is working in a way that best suits their needs.

Signs of relapse, being adverse to the treatment, or extreme discomfort tend to signal that detox treatment isn’t working as it should. Programs should be adjusted to fit as necessary.

The length of a person’s detox depends on the factors already mentioned as well as how each individual progresses during the detox phase. Once a person is feeling like they can function physically and (mostly) mentally without the drug, they are ready to move on to therapy, counseling, and other forms of formal treatment.

How To Find A Drug And Alcohol Detox Center

Detox is only the beginning of recovery for people in addiction treatment. Entering a medical detox program is a necessary first step to becoming sober, and treatment should never end with detox.

Some people may follow detox with a short-term (28 to 30 days) or long-term (90 days or more) inpatient treatment program. Others may elect to enter an outpatient program, or to attend a partial hospitalization program or intensive outpatient program, following detox. Whatever a person chooses, he or she should make a well-informed treatment decision based on their actual needs.

Detox is the phase of treatment which can save a person’s life and be the catalyst for a greater change in their health and life.

Locate A Detox Center By State

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Medical Detoxification

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration - Benzodiazepines

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