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Medical Detox for Drug and Alcohol Addiction

Learn how medical detox can serve as a safe option to help patients stabilize before inpatient treatment and a life in recovery from drugs and alcohol.

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Medical detoxification, or detox for short, is the process by which the body gradually removes any substances.1 Detox is the first stage of treating many types of drug and alcohol addiction and commonly precedes additional substance rehabilitation efforts.

The purpose of detox is to achieve medical stabilization safely over a 5–7-day period. During this time period one may experience drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms that can range from mildly uncomfortable to potentially life-threatening. Many may find medical detox with 24/7 supervision to be a safe treatment choice. It’s important to remember that detox is not a substitute for comprehensive addiction rehab. Rather, it’s an important first step designed to help you stabilize in preparation of an inpatient, residential, outpatient, or other rehab program.1, 4

Understanding what medical detox is, why medical detox is a safe option, and how to find detox treatment near you can help you stabilize and prepare for a life in recovery.

What is Medical Detox?

Medical detox treatment often involves 24/7 supervision by a medical team in an inpatient detox setting throughout the detox process. This allows the medical team to provide emergency medical intervention. As part of a medically-monitored detox program, physicians are available at all times during the day, at least by phone, and nursing staff is present at all times to assess and monitor the person who is undergoing detox.

Medical Detox Process

The precise medical detoxification processes may vary. However, there are three essential components common to different medical detox and withdrawal management programs:1, 3

  • Evaluation—A thorough assessment will be conducted to determine your specific needs for the best course of treatment. You may undergo drug testing and speak to a variety of staff, including doctors, nurses, and counselors. Your length of drug or alcohol use, the severity of your addiction, and your underlying behavioral and medical conditions will all be taken under consideration during evaluation.
  • Stabilization—May include both medical and psychological interventions to help manage intoxication and withdrawal. Medications may be administered when needed to manage symptoms of withdrawal as well as any complications to arise. Ideally, this is the time in detox where you also learn about the process of treatment; your family may also be involved in your treatment.
  • Fostering patient entry into additional treatment—An important component of any detox program will be preparing a patient for and facilitating the transfer to additional rehabilitation programming like inpatient rehab. The importance of continuing treatment after detox cannot be stressed enough, especially for someone who has previously fallen into the trap of undergoing detox and then not completing treatment.

How Long Does Medical Detox Take?

The length of detox varies from person to person. Major factors that can cause the time of detox to vary are a person’s unique needs, the type of substance abused, and for how long the substance was abused. For example, a rough timeline for alcohol detox may progress over the course of one week from the time of the last drink, with withdrawal symptoms presenting at around three days after the cessation of drinking.1

The withdrawal timeline for opioids varies based on factors including the type of opioid used and how much was used.1 Opioids with a shorter half-life, such as heroin, may give rise to withdrawal symptoms within 8 to 24 hours after last use, with symptoms largely resolving by 10 days out.1 Withdrawal for those substances with a longer half-life, such as methadone, may progress a bit more slowly, with the most acute symptoms showing up within 12 to 48 hours after the last use and potentially persisting for as long as 20 days.

Why is Medical Detox Helpful?

Medical detox is helpful as a first step to stabilizing in preparation for treatment and recovery. At times, people eager to begin their sobriety journey may contemplate just abruptly stopping any additional drug or alcohol use on their own. This “cold turkey” approach is common, and you may hear stories about people successfully detoxing from substances at home. However, withdrawal from certain substances, such as opioids, can be severely unpleasant and, for other substances, like alcohol and other central nervous system depressants, unmanaged withdrawal can be dangerous or even life-threatening.

The use of medication in a professional detox program can help make withdrawal symptoms more manageable. Medications for opioid addiction, for example, include opioid agonists such as methadone and buprenorphine. These medications can help stabilize someone experiencing withdrawal from heroin or prescription opioids.1, 4 Clonidine may also be prescribed for additional symptom relief. 1

Medical detox also can help keep someone as safe and comfortable as possible during benzodiazepine withdrawal. Detox protocols for sedative drugs such as benzodiazepines may first involve the substitution of a relatively long-acting benzodiazepine, which is then used to slowly taper a person off entirely.1

Is Medical Detox Safe While Pregnant?

Detox is possible during pregnancy with careful medical oversight. 24% of substance use treatment programs have specialized tracks for pregnant or postpartum women, while almost 6% of facilities offered childcare for clients.2 Regardless, medical detox can be a safe and effective option for pregnant women. Some of the dangers of detox while pregnant can include miscarriage and fetal death. Before starting a detox program, clinicians will carefully discuss with the patient and weigh the risks and benefits of detoxification at each woman’s particular stage of pregnancy.1 Whether or not medical detox is recommended will depend on your circumstances, so it’s important to discuss your options with your medical team.

Do I Need Medical Detox for Drugs or Alcohol?

Whether or not medical detox is right for you will depend on the severity of any substance abuse and your medical goals and needs. It’s important to reach out to a doctor in order to build a treatment plan and determine whether or not you need medical detox. When assessing someone for detox, addiction and medical professions gather information about your current level of usage, previous attempts to quit, and any medical and mental health conditions.1

This information about the severity of your addiction, drug tolerance, and physical dependence helps to complete a picture of your overall well-being, as well as the risks and benefits of detox treatment. Not every person abusing alcohol or other drugs will need a formalized detox program, but many will require specialized treatment based on their unique situation and current health. In either case, be careful about making assumptions about the best treatments for you or someone you love. It is both smart and safe to get the advice of a medical professional.

Does Insurance Cover Medical Detox Treatment?

Insurance may be able to help you cover some or all of the costs of medical detox. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires insurance plans to provide some degree of coverage for the treatment of behavioral and mental health disorders.5 This may include coverage for the treatment of substance use disorders, which commonly involves detox.5 However, the exact coverage provided for detox may vary depending on your insurance plan, where you attend treatment, how long the treatment will last, and how intensive the treatment will be. It’s important to speak with your insurance provider to determine the extent of your coverage before committing to medical detox treatment.

How to Find Medical Detox Centers Near Me

Once you have determined that medical detox is right for you, you’ll need to find a medical detox center. If you’re in contact with a doctor or other medical professional, you may consider asking them for a referral to nearby medical detox centers. It might also be worthwhile to contact your insurance company to determine which medical detox centers near you are in-network. If you’re considering attending in a different state, you may consider visiting SAMHSA’s treatment locator or the detox directory on to find a medical detox center near you.

You may also consider reaching out to a detox or addiction helpline. For those considering detox or those curious about the process, addiction helplines can provide guidance and help you navigate the world of treatment. American Addiction Centers (AAC) operates a 24/7 detox hotline that can help answer questions about medical detox. Additionally, we operate medical detox centers nationwide so there is always a local treatment center available. We can be reached at .