Medical detox safely manages the symptoms of drug and alcohol withdrawal, helping patients make it all the way through the withdrawal process safely and into recovery.

When someone uses drugs or alcohol for a long time, his or her body gets used to the effects of the substance. After a while, the body begins to depend on having a certain amount of the substance to feel “normal.” In other words, the user has become physically dependent on that substance.

When levels of the substance go down too far, his body reacts. He experiences this physical reaction through withdrawal symptoms. These withdrawal symptoms will last until his body becomes accustomed to living without the substance.

Symptoms and Complications of Withdrawal

Withdrawal symptoms are not a punishment, nor are they a sign of weakness. Withdrawal is a group of symptoms that develop as the result of a physical condition, somewhat in the same way that a cough may be the result of a viral infection or symptoms of low blood sugar are the result of diabetes.

Like a respiratory infection or diabetes, the symptoms of withdrawal can sometimes be so severe that they require the attention of a medical professional.

Withdrawal can be dangerous in some cases. The danger associated with withdrawal varies between alcohol and different types of drugs. Symptoms of withdrawal from heroin and prescription opiate pain relievers are seldom dangerous, for example, but can be severe enough to require medical management.

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are among the most dangerous; severe withdrawal from alcohol can even be life threatening.

Withdrawal from cocaine or methamphetamines can cause extreme mood imbalances, and withdrawal from Xanax, valium, or other benzodiazepines can be extremely dangerous without medical supervision.

Physical dependence on several drugs, a condition known as poly drug addiction, or dependence on both alcohol and drugs (known as dual diagnosis) can cause a combination of severe withdrawal symptoms and complications.

Physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may include:

  • whole body shakiness known as tremors
  • sweating
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea or vomiting
  • fast heart rate
  • headache
  • insomnia
  • seizures

Alcohol withdrawal may also cause behavioral symptoms, such as:

  • agitation
  • restlessness
  • irritability

Doctors refer to the most severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal as delirium tremens, or DTs.

Symptoms of opioid withdrawal may include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • sweating
  • anxiety

Withdrawal from benzodiazepines may cause:

  • nausea
  • retching and vomiting
  • sweating
  • weight loss
  • muscle pains
  • hand tremors

These symptoms can cause complications, which may be serious in some cases. Sudden withdrawal from alcohol can cause fatal seizures, for example. A fast heart rate from withdrawal may lead to cardiac problems, or an individual might inhale while vomiting, a dangerous condition known as aspiration. Likewise, vomiting and severe sweating may cause dehydration.

Relapse is a primary complication of withdrawal. Symptoms associated with drug and alcohol detoxification can be so severe that they prevent the individual from completing the detoxification process. When faced with the prospect of choosing between relapse and several more days of severe symptoms, many people have no choice but to go back to drugs or alcohol.

Depending on the substance and severity of the physical dependence, withdrawal can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks. Many people find they cannot work or take care of their families during the lengthy withdrawal process.

Medical Detox for Drug and Alcohol Dependence

Certain public and private rehabilitation centers around the country provide medical detoxification services, also known as medical detox. Specially trained doctors, nurses, licensed counselors and other medical professionals administer medications to relieve withdrawal symptoms and use advanced medical technology to monitor the health of their patients closely to reduce the risk of complications.

Medical detox features care from a physician who specializes in treating patients with drug or alcohol dependence. These clinicians prescribe medications that calm tremors and DTs, control heart rhythms, and ease nausea and vomiting.

Inpatient medical detox includes around-the-clock nursing care. Nurses administer medications that lessen withdrawal symptoms and watch for signs of complications. Licensed counselors provide behavioral therapy that help patients overcome the social and emotional aspects of physical dependence and addiction.

Medical detox reduces the symptoms of drug and alcohol withdrawal to tolerable levels, which helps patients make it all the way through the detoxification process and into recovery.