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Experiencing withdrawal symptoms from alcohol or drug use is a significant sign that there is a serious problem. Using a drug once or drinking alcohol on occasion will not cause withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms happen when the body has developed a dependence on a substance.
Detoxing can be extremely uncomfortable, and even life-threatening when detoxing from certain substances. Oftentimes, withdrawal will require a medical detoxification (detox) to ensure a person’s safety.
Entering a detox facility may be intimidating for some people, so they may choose to investigate completing a “natural detox” at home. This method is not recommended for a safe or successful detox.
A medical detox offers patients medications, hydration, and a comfortable environment to ease the discomfort of withdrawal symptoms. When detoxing at home, many people relapse because they cannot bear the discomfort of these symptoms. Detoxing under medical supervision greatly increases one’s odds of completing the detox.
Symptoms of withdrawal vary based on the substance and severity of dependence. Generally, severe medical symptoms of a substance-based withdrawal present with these common symptoms:
Those that have been struggling with an addiction for many years are most likely familiar with these symptoms, as unwanted or unintended withdrawal is a common occurrence in the lifestyle of an active addiction.
For those who may have recently developed a substance use problem, or family members who may be noticing these symptoms for the first time, it can be especially frightening to experience.
Many look to the internet for home remedies to try and manage their symptoms on their own at home. Attempting to detox from a substance without medical supervision is often referred to as “natural detox.” A natural detox is sometimes seen as a perceived alternative to having to enter a medical detox facility. Those facing addiction and withdrawal may choose this dangerous alternative to avoid the potentially uncomfortable emotions related to seeking professional help for a substance use disorder.
If you did an internet search for the term “alcohol natural detox” you will be inundated with multiple websites mentioning a variety of “treatments” you can undergo at home. Many of these treatments include drinking fluids, taking supplements such as Vitamin B, and doing mindfulness-based activities such as yoga or meditation.
While these options may be provided with good intentions, they not only have a lower chance of successfully completing detox but can also be dangerous. These at-home “treatments” do not account for the significant risk of complications from withdrawal symptoms that can and do occur.
It is commonly reported that those who attempt to detox without supervision tend to utilize other substances such as Benzodiazepines, Pseudo-Opiates such as Kratom, or other narcotics to “manage” or “even out” their withdrawal symptoms until they return to their substance of choice. This method is strongly discouraged and has its own seriously dangerous risks, including accidental overdose. For these reasons, any medical professional would highly suggest entering a medical detoxification program rather than attempting a natural detox.
The dangers of acute withdrawal symptoms from many substances can be serious, however, some of the most abused substances such as alcohol, Benzodiazepines, and Opiates come with additional risks that can be life-threatening.
These acute withdrawals often demand a medical detox to reduce the risk of developing any serious life-threatening symptoms such as dehydration, seizures, and overdose as one goes through the detoxification process.
Medical detox, unlike natural detox, will always involve a professional such as a physician, advanced nurse practitioner, physician assistant, or other advanced healthcare provider who utilizes approved medications and protocols that were designed to treat acute withdrawal symptoms.
The provider works with a team of healthcare professionals including nurses, technicians, and therapists within a treatment environment. The environment can range from major hospitals if utilizing an emergency department (ED) all the way to small boutique detox programs designed to make the detoxification process as comfortable as possible.
It is possible to complete an outpatient detoxification depending on the severity of the withdrawal (often called an ambulatory detox program). However, inpatient programs reduce the risk for major complications due to 24-hour staff observation and medical intervention services (if required).
According to the National Institutes of Health, below are common medications that are provided during the detox process.
|Alcohol||Benzodiazepines: Valium, Librium, Ativan||Benzodiazepines and alcohol are chemically similar in how they impact the body, so medical professionals utilize these medications for a short period to manage uncomfortable & life-threatening symptoms like seizures. These help symptoms become much more manageable than going “cold turkey”.|
|Benzodiazepines||Benzodiazepines: Klonopin, Valium||Benzodiazepines are a tricky medication, often with a significant physical and psychological dependence risk factor. The medications used will often depend on the “risk of relapse” after detoxification. The goal would be to slowly reduce the dosage after a set period to either not requiring it or changing the medication from a short acting half-life like Xanax to a longer half like Valium depending on the medical providers assessment.|
Partial Opiates: Methadone, Suboxone, Buprenorphine, etc.
After Detox: Suboxone, Methadone, naltrexone (Vivitrol)
Overdose: Naloxone (Narcan)
Non controlled medications: Trazadone, clonidine, over the counter medications.
|Opiates are extremely habit forming and medical professionals will generally use longer acting (half-life) Opiates that combine with other medications to reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms. It is common for those who struggle with Opiates to start a Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) program which may include taking medication after the detox to reduce the risk of relapse. Depending on if an overdose is actively occurring, Narcan is a medication that anyone can use to prevent loss of life if used correctly and medical attention happens afterwards.|
|Stimulants (Cocaine, Methamphetamine, etc)||Anti-Psychotic Medications
Non controlled medications: Trazodone for sleep, Clonidine for anxiety, over the counter medications.
|Stimulants are not often considered high risk in terms of life-threatening symptoms; however, it can be quite uncomfortable. Irritability, anxiety, and sleep deprivation are common complaints. The medications for sleep and to help reduce anxiety with non-controlled substances are commonly provided. Risk of hallucinations and psychosis from some stimulants are possible, requiring antipsychotics to treat in some cases.|
|Cannabis||Non controlled medications: Trazodone for sleep, Clonidine for anxiety, over the counter medications||Cannabis detoxification is typically mild, however can be difficult for someone to experience when dependent on the substance. Medications are mainly to help manage uncomfortable symptoms around nausea and appetite.|
|Psychedelics & Inhalants||Anti-Psychotic Medications
Non controlled medications: Trazodone for sleep, Clonidine for anxiety, over the counter medications
|This category is not usually considered high risk in terms of life-threatening symptoms; however, it can be uncomfortable. Medical detox from these conditions is rare, with possible physical complications from exposure to long term inhalant use being a significant concern. Long term psychedelic use may require psychiatric involvement.|
*This is not medical advice, please review medication recommendations with your medical provider.
It is imperative that if someone is experiencing withdrawal symptoms, they find treatment for their condition as soon as possible to prevent any serious life-threatening conditions from occurring. For many, the detox process is the scariest step, however, there are people ready and willing to help you make it. Once you’ve decided to enter treatment, your journey to recovery can begin. For more information about entering a treatment program, contact a treatment provider for free today.
Travis Pantiel, LMHC, MCAP
Travis Pantiel is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a National Board-Certified Counselor with specialized expertise in the co-occurring disorder treatment field.
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