Addiction is a serious medical condition and even the strongest-willed people can struggle with quitting drugs or alcohol. Choosing to entrust your care to addiction specialists in a professional rehab setting is a strength, and medical detox is a common first step in drug rehab.

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What is Medical Detox?

The goal of medical detox is to help someone manage the first days of recovery in a safe, supportive environment that eliminates triggers and temptations. Importantly, medical detox includes around-the-clock supervision by medical professionals who can intervene in the case of medical complications. In addition, people who are struggling with withdrawal symptoms may be provided with medications that can help them manage their symptoms.

When is Medical Detox Needed?

Medical detox is most common among people who have developed a serious addiction to and physical dependence on a drug. In these cases, quitting without professional help can be risky, even dangerous. Some drugs are more likely to require medical detox than others. Alcohol and benzodiazepines are particularly risky drugs to quit without medical detox. Other drugs, including opioids, are associated with profoundly uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that are best managed in the context of a medical detox program.

Who Benefits from Medically Assisted Detox?

Medical detox is usually geared toward people with serious substance use disorders and debilitating physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms, but anyone who is struggling with withdrawal can benefit from medically-assisted detox. There are several important benefits that medical detox offers, including:

  • 24/7 supervision by medical professionals
  • Consistent access to addiction specialists who can address questions and concerns as they arise
  • When appropriate, medications that can ease the severity of withdrawal symptoms may be provided

Drugs That Normally Need Medically Assisted Detox

Some drugs have such a significant impact on the chemical signaling in the brain that quitting suddenly can be dangerous, even life-threatening. Alcohol and prescription benzodiazepines are drugs that can be very risky to quit without medical care. Other drugs are associated with severe withdrawal symptoms that substantially increase the risk for relapse in the early days of recovery.

Drugs that often need medical detox include:

What to Expect During Medical Detox

Medical detox is often the first step in recovery, and many people will experience physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms that can be very uncomfortable. Depending on the drug(s) involved and degree of addiction, medical detox may include a drug tapering schedule or taking prescribed medications that will reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms.

Quality medical detox programs provide safe, comfortable spaces that are fully staffed by addiction experts and medical professionals. Unfortunately, medical detox is always an uncomfortable process but it is the safest and most effective way to make it through the first days of recovery.

Detox Medications Used

Medications used in medical detox work by reducing physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms. Among the most common medications are those in the benzodiazepine class of drugs, which act to calm areas of the brain involved in creating withdrawal symptoms. The benzodiazepine class of drugs has several subclasses, so even people with benzodiazepine use disorders may be prescribed to a long-acting benzodiazepine to help reduce withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol detox medication is typically a long-acting benzodiazepine. A key effect of alcohol is to limit activity in certain parts of the brain. When someone who has become physically dependent on alcohol quits suddenly, these parts of the brain can become hyperexcitable, which is why people in withdrawal often tremble and feel anxious. In extreme cases, seizures, delirium and even death can occur when someone quits drinking abruptly without medical care. Benzodiazepines reduce this hyperexcitability, allowing someone to undergo detox with reduced risk for dangerous complications.

Prescription opioids and heroin detox medication are often also benzodiazepines, but in some cases people may be given long-acting opioids that are not associated with the euphoric effects that popular opioids of abuse are known for. These medications allow people to get through the initial discomfort of detox and withdrawal.

How Long Does Medical Detox Last?

Quality medical detox programs are tailored to the client, so there is no set time frame for how long medical detox should last. Most people will spend several days in medical detox, and people with severe substance use disorders may spend more than a week in medical detox.

Importantly, withdrawal symptoms often persist even after a drug has been completely metabolized and is no longer in your system. Many drugs of abuse are metabolized within about a day, so a key goal of medical detox is to help people manage the physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms that persist even after a drug has left their system. The persistence and severity of your withdrawal symptoms will be a major factor in how long your medical detox period will last.

What Comes After Detox

Triggers and temptation aren’t easy for anyone to manage without help, and medical detox is only the first step towards recovery. Without subsequent rehab, medical detox is unlikely to be sufficient for someone to achieve sobriety. Most people transition from a medical detox program into a residential (or inpatient) rehab program that gives them a real chance to make it through the first weeks of recovery.

Many people who have achieved long-term success in recovery believe that it requires consistent maintenance. As you progress through rehab, it is important that you find healthy alternatives to drug or alcohol use. Participating in aftercare programs is a reliable way to meet new people with similar goals and interests. In addition, many people find that exercise and picking up new hobbies is a good way to reduce the risk of relapse.

How to Find a Suitable Detox Center Near You

There are a number of factors to keep in mind as you evaluate medical detox centers, including:

  • Location: While the nearest detox center may be the most convenient, it is not necessarily the best one for you. Don’t be afraid to evaluate programs that are farther from home
  • Cost: Unfortunately, cost is often a significant factor when considering rehab programs. Many quality facilities offer sliding fee scales and grants or scholarships to help people get the treatment they need. In addition, many insurance plans (including Medicaid) can help defray some of the costs of rehab
  • Treatment plans: When assessing medical detox facilities, ask whether they are equipped to help you manage rehab when you complete your detox program
  • Staff-to-patient ratio: Medical detox programs involve consistent care by rehab staff. Make sure the staff-to-patient ratio is low enough that you will have plenty of access to staff members
  • Accreditation: Finding a program that is accredited by either The Joint Commission or CARF International guarantees a certain standard of care

Detox Programs at The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper

The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper offers high-quality, evidence-based medical detox programs that are designed to give clients a solid foundation for success as they progress through recovery. Our experts understand addiction and have demonstrated excellence in helping people achieve sobriety, and we are dedicated to providing continuing support to our clients in the form of aftercare.

In addition to medical detox, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper provides full-service rehab programs and a multidisciplinary staff that is equipped to help clients manage every facet of their recovery. Among the treatment options that are included in our rehab programs are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and family therapy sessions. We can also provide a dual diagnosis and initial treatment for clients with substance use disorders who also have co-occurring mental health disorders.

Other Questions About Medical Detox

Frequently asked questions about the medical detox process follow.

How does detox fit into the addiction treatment process?

Medical detox is a common first step in addiction recovery, and is often an important step in achieving long term sobriety. Drugs like alcohol and benzodiazepines can be dangerous, even life-threatening, to quit suddenly without medical care. Quitting opioids or methamphetamine is generally not life-threatening, but the severe withdrawal symptoms associated with these drugs increase the risk for relapse.

Does medical detox treat addiction?

Medical detox is a component of addiction treatment but, on its own, is insufficient to help people succeed in recovery. Medical detox provides a safe environment and medical oversight for people who have just quit using their drug(s) of choice. In most cases, subsequent addiction treatment programs are an important next step in recovery.

Is medical detox the same as tapering?

Tapering may be a component of a medical detox program, but they are not the same. Tapering is a strategy that gradually reduces a drug dose over time in order to minimize the withdrawal symptoms that are associated with quitting. Many prescription medications, including benzodiazepines and opioids, are tapered when patients want to quit. People with addictions to illicit drugs may work with an addiction specialist who can provide them with a tapered prescription for a medication that minimizes withdrawal symptoms.

Are medical detox and medication-assisted treatment (MAT) the same?

Medical detox from opiates and medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opiate use disorders are not the same, but they may go hand-in-hand. Opioids are powerfully addictive drugs that are associated with severe and prolonged withdrawal symptoms. In extreme cases, withdrawal symptoms can persist for months or years.

MAT uses long-acting opioids that are not associated with euphoria to “trick” the brain into believing that its drug of choice is present. MAT allows people with otherwise debilitating opioid use disorders to maintain healthy, productive lifestyles that may otherwise be impossible. Importantly, MAT is not trading one drug for another one; for some people, MAT is the best chance they have at getting their life back.

What are the other forms of detox?

Many people transition out of medical detox into a residential (or inpatient) rehab program, where they participate in individual and group therapy sessions in a safe, productive environment. Outpatient treatment is another option, and outpatient programs range from intensive programs where clients live on-site to weekly or bi-weekly therapy sessions. After completing a formal rehab program, many people find aftercare programs to be valuable long-term strategies to maintain sobriety.

Editor – Rob Alston
Rob Alston has traveled around Australia, Japan, Europe, and America as a writer and editor for industries including personal wellness and recovery. Read more
Medically Reviewed By – Eric Patterson, LPC
Eric Patterson is a licensed professional counselor in the Pittsburgh area who is dedicated to helping children, adults, and families meet their treatment goals. Read more

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Medical detoxification.” Updated February 2016. Accessed February 19, 2020.

Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. “Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treat[…]tion and Withdrawal.” 2006. Accessed February 19, 2020.

Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. “Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment: Opioids.” 2006. Accessed February 19, 2020.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.