Drug Detox Information

The Truth Behind Substance Detoxification

By Hugh C. McBride

By Hugh C. McBride "Detox" is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. Diets, foot baths, lifestyle management programs, and herbal supplements are just a few of the many products and services that are marketed with this vague term. But in the world of alcohol and drug rehabilitation, detox is a serious process - and an essential step in an addict's path to recovery. 

In its broadest sense, to detoxify means to remove a poison (or the effects of that poison) from a body or an environment. For individuals who are addicted to alcohol or other drugs, detoxification is a process through which their bodies get rid of the substance or substances to which they were addicted. 

Detox is a physical process with emotional and psychological ramifications, and it is best undertaken under the supervision of a qualified physician or medical team. Detox is a crucial step in the recovery process, as an addicted individual cannot fully participate in the rehabilitation and recovery effort if he is still using, or if he is experiencing the withdrawal symptoms associated with his body's cravings for the object of his addiction.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol and other drugs can inflict severe damage on the human body. But for addicted individuals, the absence of these substances can also have negative effects on their health. For example, alcoholics who stop drinking can experience symptoms ranging from shakiness and nausea to convulsions and hallucinations.

Though withdrawal symptoms are usually temporary, some severe cases can be fatal. This explains why the supervision of a qualified physician is an important component of the detox process.

The effects of detoxification vary from person to person based on a variety of factors. But the following are among the most common withdrawal symptoms associated with substance abuse:

  • Alcohol - Not everyone who stops drinking experiences withdrawal symptoms. And, as noted above, those who do can feel effects that range from annoying to devastating. Some alcoholics become dizzy or nauseous within hours of taking their last drink, while others experience clammy skin, tremors, and a loss of appetite.

The most extreme symptoms of alcohol withdrawal involve delirium tremens, a potentially fatal condition that is commonly referred to as DT. About 5 percent of recovering alcoholics experience DT, which is most common among individuals with a long history of alcohol abuse or who have had previous withdrawal experiences. DT can include delusions, hallucinations, and seizures, and can have a mortality rate as great as 35 percent, if left untreated.

  • Cocaine - Cocaine withdrawal is not usually accompanied by the dizziness, nausea, and shaking that most alcoholics experience. However, following prolonged use or an intense binge, cocaine users may experience a "crash" that is characterized by anxiety, irritability, fatigue, and depression.

The malaise and agitation associated with cocaine withdrawal can persist months after cessation of use, and can be accompanied by thoughts of suicide. Because studies have indicated that as many as half of all cocaine addicts also suffer from mental disorders such as depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the mental health aspects of cocaine withdrawal can be particularly acute.

  • Opiates - Heroin is the most commonly abused opiate. Other abused drugs in this category include morphine, codeine, opium, and oxycodone (the primary active ingredient in OxyContin). Opiate-related withdrawal symptoms, which can begin within six hours of abstinence, can include abdominal pain, agitation, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.

Some heroin users who are detoxifying experience a phenomenon known as "itchy blood," which causes them to scratch themselves compulsively - even to the point of breaking the skin or causing bruises. The intense symptoms of opiate withdrawal (or "dopesickness," as it is often called) usually peak within two to three days after the start of detox.

The Detoxification Process

The stages of detox can vary, but it generally takes between three to seven days to eradicate physical withdrawal symptoms (though some cases can take as long as two weeks). Again, because of the severity of the symptoms that can follow withdrawal from alcohol and opiates, most experts advise that the process not be undertaken without the supervision of a qualified physician.

Years ago, detox often took the form of shutting an addicted individual away to suffer through the experience in a virtually isolated environment - a "cold turkey" approach based on a punishment mentality.

Today, a more humane and medically sound philosophy is the rule, with detoxing individuals placed under close supervision and prescribed medications when necessary to relieve anxiety or prevent seizures. In cases of opiate withdrawal, heroin detox in particular, drugs such as methadone or buprenorphine may be prescribed to help ease the body back to a healthier state.

Regardless of a hospital or detox facility's policy regarding medication during detox, undergoing the process in the presence of qualified personnel minimizes the health risks associated with withdrawal. Also, hospitals and rehabilitation facilities provide safe and supportive environments in which a patient's medical and mental health needs can be met during and after detox.

Once an individual has gone through the detoxification process and been weaned from her physical dependence on a particular drug, she can then begin to address the social, emotional, and psychological issues related to her addiction. Though detox is just one step in a lifelong effort to overcome addiction, it is an essential stage that establishes a foundation upon which a new and drug-free life can be built.