For some people, addiction affects more than their mental health (causing symptoms such as cravings and a compulsion to seek and use the drug). Prolonged substance abuse can also lead to physical dependence, a severe form of addiction caused by certain drugs. People with a physical dependence on a substance usually require a medical detoxification in order to quit the drug of abuse.

Medically assisted drug and alcohol detox programs are in place to ensure individuals can safely rid their bodies of substances in order to prepare for formal treatment.

Why Is A Medical Detox Necessary?

Not everyone will require detoxification in order to enter an addiction treatment program. Certain substances may only cause a psychological addiction, and for those addictions, detox may not be necessary.

Other substances, such as alcohol and opioids, cause severe physical dependence. Once a person is dependent on such substances, he or she cannot function normally without the drug. They may experience harrowing, uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, some of which can be life-threatening. A medically assisted detox program allows a person to detoxify in a safe environment with a greatly reduced risk of health complications.

Effects Of Withdrawal

Effects of withdrawal will vary by the substance of abuse, duration of abuse and the person, but general withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • a headache
  • nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • severe cravings
  • anxiety or depression

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Different drugs will cause widely different effects, some of which can have negative consequences. Alcohol withdrawal, at its most severe, can cause a dangerous syndrome known as delirium tremens. Opioid withdrawal can lead to dangerously slowed or stopped breathing. For reasons such as these and others, it’s important to undergo detoxification in a supervised environment.

What Are Medically Assisted Detox Programs?

Medically assisted detox programs provide ongoing clinical and medical support to individuals undergoing detox from drugs or alcohol. In the most reputable rehab centers, these programs are staffed by clinicians and medical personnel who are devoted to seeing individuals through detoxification and helping them transition into recovery.

During detoxification, individuals will have access to medical support, medication if needed and nutritional support. Certain drugs, such as opioids, may require a person to taper off the use of the drugs slowly to avoid relapse. Medically assisted detox programs are structured for the safest tapering processes to provide comfort and allow individuals to detoxify their bodies in a way that is right for them.

Medications are administered to patients in medical detox programs by staff only and the use of medications is highly monitored. Use of medications can alleviate withdrawal symptoms or aid in the tapering process.

The main focus of a detox program is to help a person safely rid their body of harmful toxins acquired during the abuse. However, medically assisted detox programs also work to improve physical health on a grander scale, which can mean addressing nutritional deficiencies and dietary needs as well.

Detox programs are not to be confused with inpatient treatment, as they are only the beginning of formal addiction treatment. The best rehab centers provide both medically assisted detox programs and inpatient treatment programs with a seamless transition from one to the next for recovering individuals.

Drug Addictions That May Require Medical Detox

Essentially, any drug could require detoxification, as detox is simply the process of ridding a person’s body of a substance of abuse. However, certain drugs can lead to life-threatening withdrawal symptoms or greatly increased risk of relapse during detox, and addictions to these drugs necessitate medically supervised detox.

Drug addictions that may require medical detox include:

  • alcohol
  • barbiturates
  • benzodiazepines
  • opioids


Alcohol withdrawal is most likely to occur in adults but can occur in teens, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. This is because alcohol, a legal substance which is often abused and socially acceptable, may take an extended period of time to produce physical dependence, unlike other drugs of abuse.

However, heavy drinking and binge drinking tend to lead to physical dependence—the more a person drinks, the higher the chance of developing dependence and experiencing withdrawal. In addition to general withdrawal symptoms, alcohol withdrawal can cause fatigue, irritability, shakiness or tremors, mood swings, nightmares, insomnia, sweating, loss of appetite, pallor and mental confusion.

Severe alcohol withdrawal, known as delirium tremens, can lead to fever, agitation, hallucinations, and seizures. Medically assisted detox programs for alcohol withdrawal can provide monitoring of blood pressure, body temperature, and heart rate, as well as administration of IV fluids and medication as needed for optimal comfort.


Barbiturates are an older class of drugs most commonly use for their sedative effects. Now largely replaced in medical use by benzodiazepines, barbiturates are mostly used for animal sedation. Still, the drugs are abused recreationally.

Common barbiturates of abuse include amobarbital sodium (Amytal), pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal), phenobarbital (Nembutal) and secobarbital sodium (Seconal).

Due to the sedation effects of the drugs, barbiturates can cause physical dependence very quickly. When taken exactly as directed, barbiturates cause mild side effects. Abuse of the drugs poses much greater risks to a person’s health. Perhaps the greatest danger associated with barbiturate abuse is the risk of overdose. The difference between a lethal dose and a safe dose is extremely small.

Withdrawal symptoms from barbiturates can cause mild effects, like restlessness, stomach cramps, nausea, and vomiting, but can also be fatal. The majority of people undergoing barbiturate withdrawal experience seizures, thoughts of suicide, extreme confusion and increased body temperature.

Medically assisted detox for barbiturate withdrawal typically includes a tapering process, to ensure a person safely weans off the drug, monitoring of vital functions, medication if needed and constant medical support.


Benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressant medications prescribed for their sedative-hypnotic effects and used to treat a number of conditions, including anxiety and insomnia. However, benzodiazepines have become common drugs of abuse. Especially when mixed with other central nervous system depressants, these drugs can lead to fatal overdose.

Common benzodiazepines of abuse include: alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan), clonazepam (Klonopin), diazepam (Valium) and temazepam (Restoril).

People who take benzodiazepines for extended periods may develop tolerance, or need larger and more frequent doses to experience the same effects. This can lead to abuse and to increased risk of overdose. If a person tries to stop the use of benzodiazepines, they may experience uncomfortable or dangerous withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety, dysphoria, insomnia, tremors, and seizures.

People in medically assisted detox programs for benzodiazepine addiction can receive medication to help ease withdrawal symptoms, will be medically monitored to avoid seizures and will receive ongoing medical support.


Opioids are one of the most commonly abused substances, with opioid abuse and addiction problems in every state. Opioid medications, also known as painkillers, are prescribed for the treatment of moderate to severe pain. The drugs are highly addictive and rarely prescribed for long-term use.

Even a short period of abuse of opioids can lead to addiction and dependence. While opioid withdrawal symptoms are not always life-threatening, withdrawal can lead to symptoms which are so uncomfortable they easily lead a person to relapse.

Commonly abused opioids include codeine, heroin, hydrocodone (Vicodin), hydromorphone (Dilaudid), methadone, meperidine (Demerol), morphine and oxycodone (Percocet, OxyContin).

Opioid medications are often abused by crushing and snorting the pills or tablets or by injection. After a few weeks of heavy abuse, a person can develop a physical dependence to opioids and will experience withdrawal symptoms within a few hours of their last dose. While opioid withdrawal is not usually fatal, symptoms often begin as mild and worsen with time.

Early symptoms of opioid withdrawal can include agitation and anxiety, muscle aches, tremors, sweating, runny nose, insomnia and tearing of the eyes. Later opioid withdrawal symptoms may include stomach cramping and diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, goose bumps and dilated pupils.

Withdrawal from opioids is dangerous because symptoms are so uncomfortable they often lead to a person taking more of the drug for relief, which can cause a build-up of the drug in a person’s body. With time, this can lead to overdose due to dangerously slowed breathing and heart rates.

Medically assisted detox programs treat opioid withdrawal through careful monitoring of a person’s breathing, heart and other rates, by tapering and through use of medications such as buprenorphine (Subutex, Suboxone).

The Dangers Of Self Detoxification

Attempting self-detoxification in lieu of entering a medically assisted detox program is risky for a number of reasons. Namely, certain drugs of abuse require tapering in order to safely and effectively quit use of them.

For some, tapering is a process which can take months, or even years if necessary. Methadone and buprenorphine maintenance programs allow individuals to not only detox from opioids, but to continue use of medication until their body is ready to stop the use of it. This way, there is less risk of relapse and further substance abuse or risk of overdose.

In addition, self-detoxification can lead to a number of health complications. Seizures slowed breathing and heart rates and hallucinations or convulsions can all lead to dangerous consequences when left untreated. Medication-assisted detox programs can keep such consequences from happening through constant monitoring and clinical support.

Many people neglect their physical health during addiction, falling victim to nutritional and other deficiencies, which can also become serious conditions when not addressed. Medical detox programs work to treat all aspects of physical health, allowing for greater recovery success in formal treatment.

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What Happens After A Medical Detox?

Once a person has completed a medically assisted detox program, he or she is ready for formal treatment. There are a number of programs from which to choose, the most effective of which, for treatment of physical dependence, is inpatient addiction treatment. Others include intensive outpatient and partial hospitalization programs and outpatient programs and support groups.

Inpatient Addiction Treatment

Participants in inpatient addiction treatment programs, also called residential programs, reside within the facility for an extended period of time to receive treatment. Inpatient rehab centers may follow a specific approach to treatment, such as gender-specific or 12-step, and programs may be anywhere from 28 days to a year or more, depending on client need.

Treatment components generally include counseling, some form of behavioral therapy (such as cognitive-behavioral therapy) and individual/group therapy. Rehab centers will offer different additional therapies, such as art, recreational, wilderness or holistic, and the best programs will be customized according to each individual.

Intensive Outpatient Or Partial Hospitalization Programs

Intensive outpatient programs (IOP) and partial hospitalization programs (PHP) are outpatient programs which aim to provide addiction treatment comparable to that of inpatient programs. IOPs tend to be more intensive than PHPs and occur on a more frequent basis. Both programs work well as a step-down from inpatient treatment and for people who are unable to enter inpatient treatment.

Outpatient Programs And Support Groups

Outpatient programs provide certain services on a regular basis, such as counseling, group therapy or support meetings. Support groups bring together individuals in recovery to uplift each other, share experiences and help maintain sobriety.

To learn more about medically assisted drug and alcohol detox programs or inpatient treatment, contact Vertava Health today.