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Understanding Detox

With the opioid use disorder epidemic, many are trying to better understand how addiction is treated. For many people in active drug or alcohol addiction, the first step in getting help for their disease is detoxification.

Nancy DeAngelis, CRNP, Director of Behavioral Health at Abington - Jefferson Health, answers four questions about detox.

What is detox?

Detox or medical detoxification is the safe management of acute physical symptoms of withdrawal associated with stopping drug or alcohol use. However, medical detoxification is only the first stage of addiction treatment and by itself does little to change long-term addiction. Although detoxification alone is rarely sufficient to help individuals achieve long-term recovery, for some individuals it is a strongly indicated precursor to effective substance use treatment.

How is detox managed by health professionals?

A medical detoxification facility is a treatment center that is staffed with medical professionals trained in helping patients cope with the withdrawal symptoms of early drug or alcohol abstinence. An individualized plan is developed to manage withdrawal in a safe manner with the least amount of discomfort to the patient. Without medical care, these withdrawal symptoms may be unpleasant, dangerous and even life-threatening.

Which substances require detox prior to treatment?

Individuals using any of the following drugs may need medically supervised detoxification:

Opiates (heroin, prescription opiates, Vicodin, etc.): Although detoxification from these drugs is seldom dangerous, the withdrawal symptoms may require medical management for comfort.
Alcohol: These withdrawal symptoms are among the most dangerous, and can be life-threatening in severe cases. A medicated and supervised detox is safe and necessary.
Stimulants (cocaine and methamphetamines): Some individuals with stimulant addiction require detoxification to cope with extreme mood imbalances experienced during early abstinence.
Benzodiazepines (Xanax, valium, etc.): The sudden discontinuing use of these drugs can be life threatening and should never be attempted without medical supervision.
Inhalants, marijuana, and other drugs, depending on the situation, may require detox as well.

How long does it take for someone to undergo detoxification?

There is no set duration for medical detoxification and the length of time required will depend on the drug or alcohol addiction, the medical history of the patient and the extent of use. They range most commonly from a few days to about ten days.

Continuing Addiction Treatment

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

Medical detox is often a first necessary step to addiction treatment. Detox should always be followed by entry into a residential or an outpatient addiction treatment program.

If you or someone you love has a problem with drugs or alcohol, please call 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

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