What Is Medical Detox?

By John Lee

For many people, a stay at drug rehab begins with a period of medical detox.

A medical detox facility is a treatment center that is staffed with doctors and nurses trained in helping patients cope with the withdrawal symptoms of early drug or alcohol abstinence. Without medical care, these withdrawal symptoms can be unpleasant, dangerous and even life-threatening.

People enter a medical detox facility so that they can withdraw from drugs or alcohol safely and in relative comfort.

Around-the-clock nursing care ensures safety and certain medications can reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms, as well as decrease the dangers of this initial period.

Who Needs Medical Detox?

Not every patient requiring a stay in drug rehab needs to begin with a medical detox. People who need medical detox meet one or more of the following criteria:

Have a physical addiction to certain drugs
Would experience great discomfort withdrawing without assistance
Would risk their health withdrawing without medical supervision

People using any of the following drugs may need medically supervised detox:

Heroin – Although opiate detoxification is seldom dangerous, the withdrawal pains of heroin detox require medical management for comfort.
Prescription pain pills – Prescribed opiates, like vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet, induce a withdrawal period very similar in nature to heroin.
Alcohol – Alcohol’s withdrawal symptoms are among the most dangerous, and can be life-threatening in severe cases. A medicated and supervised detox is safe, comfortable and very necessary.
Cocaine/Methamphetamine – Some people with stimulant addiction require medical detoxification to cope with the extreme mood imbalances experienced during early abstinence.
Benzodiazepines – Suddenly stopping the use of benzodiazepines (like xanax or valium) can be life-threatening and should never be attempted without medical supervision.
Club drugs, inhalants, marijuana and other drugs – Depending on the situation (dual diagnosis, heavy use, poly drug addiction), people abusing drugs other than those listed above may require a medical detox as well.

How Long Does Detox Take?

There is no set duration for medical detox. The length of time required will depend on the drug abused, the medical history of the patient and the extent of use. Detox durations range most commonly from a few days to about 10 days.

Do Drug Rehabs Offer Medical Detox?

Some drug rehabs will have medical detox facilities on-site. Those rehabs that do not can generally arrange for your entry into a suitable detox program prior to your admittance in drug rehab.

Is Medical Detox Enough to Treat Addiction?

Although patients will often leave a medical detox facility feeling better than they have in years, those that do not transition from detox to continuing addiction treatment are almost certain to relapse.

Medical detox is a first necessary step which readies a person for addiction treatment. Medical detox alone is not addiction treatment and offers very little promise of continuing sobriety. Detox should always be followed by immediate entry into a residential or outpatient addiction treatment program.