- Jan 14
Detox is the first step in the recovery process from substance use disorder. Whether a person struggles with alcohol use or drug use, the withdrawal symptoms of detox range in severity from mildly uncomfortable to dangerous and life-threatening. Completing the detox process and achieving a successful recovery is possible, and it’s important to undergo detox in a safe and supportive setting.
Given the dangers of at-home drug or alcohol detox, the detox process is safest and most effective when completed in a professional medical setting. Attempting to detox at home presents various risks and can result in death depending on how severe withdrawal symptoms are. Withdrawal symptoms are often sudden and unpredictable, so it is important to receive medical supervision and interventions when necessary.
What Is Detox?
Detox is the process of clearing the body of habit-forming or mind-altering substances. When someone detoxes, they stop using a substance they are addicted to. During this process, the body undergoes different changes because it has become dependent on a substance and now has to function without it.
When a person has a substance use disorder, they may struggle with two types of dependence:
- Physical dependence: When someone struggles with a physical dependency on a substance, their body requires the substance in order to function.
- Psychological dependence: When someone struggles with a psychological dependency, they hold the belief that they cannot go through life without the substance
Both physical and psychological dependence occur simultaneously for many individuals, which can make the detox process especially difficult.
Symptoms of Withdrawal in Detox
Those who struggle with a substance use disorder have to fully stop using a substance in order to detox, and they will experience withdrawal symptoms based on their history with the substance. Withdrawal symptoms can be especially difficult if the individual has been using the substance heavily for a long period of time.
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can include some or all of the following:
- Abdominal cramping
In severe cases of withdrawal from alcohol use, individuals may also experience delirium tremens, which is a condition that causes increased heart rate, confusion, high blood pressure, fever and seizures.
Symptoms of withdrawal from other drugs are similar to alcohol withdrawal symptoms, but may also include the following:
- Muscle aches
- Runny nose
- Dilated pupils
- Hot and cold flashes
- Short-term memory loss
- Psychotic episodes
- Thoughts of self-harm
The severity of withdrawal symptoms depends on a person’s age, how long they have been using a substance and how much of a substance they use leading up to detox. Withdrawal symptoms usually start within six hours of when a person has their last drink or dose of a drug.
Some people may experience withdrawal symptoms for a week or two, but others could experience withdrawal symptoms for up to a couple of months. Some symptoms can even come and go over the course of a year, which is referred to as post-acute withdrawal symptoms or chronic alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Why Unsupervised Drug Withdrawal Is Dangerous
Abstinence is the best way to treat substance use disorder, but people should not approach this process alone. People might believe it is easy to detox from drugs at home if they have enough willpower, but a substance use disorder is more than a struggle with willpower. It is a condition that can cause severe physical and mental symptoms. Some of the dangerous and potentially fatal complications of detoxing at home include the following:
1. Relapse and Overdose
Relapse is a common risk during home detox. It can lead to a fatal overdose because cravings and withdrawal symptoms can become overwhelming.
With intense withdrawal symptoms, people who attempt to detox at home might find it impossible to resist the drug they struggled with. When someone begins to detox from a drug, they reset their body chemistry and their tolerance of the drug. This means the high dosage of the drug they may have been used to before detox can be fatal because the body can no longer handle it.
The relapse rate for substance use disorder is 40%-60%. In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 93,331 of recorded deaths that year were due to drug overdose. Medical professionals can manage withdrawal symptoms and prevent relapse and fatal overdoses in a treatment program, but if a person attempts detoxing at home they could relapse and fatally overdose.
2. Struggles With Mental Well-Being
When people withdraw from drugs, they can experience depression, panic, exhaustion and frustration. In addition, mental health conditions that co-occur with substance use disorder can escalate during detox and become debilitating. It is dangerous to experience these intense feelings alone because they can lead to relapse.
Mental health conditions can also lead a person to attempt suicide during the detox process. In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received reports of suicide in patients who were dependent on opioid pain medications and rapidly stopped using the medications.
3. Health Complications
Health complications often arise during the detox process. Detoxing from benzodiazepines can cause seizures and severe psychotic symptoms among other side effects. Severe withdrawal symptoms can lead to complications that require care from medical professionals. In addition, co-occurring chronic health conditions can become worse or cause complications during the detox process. Overall, it’s important to have medical care during detox so any health conditions can be addressed and treated appropriately.
Why Unsupervised Alcohol Withdrawal Is Dangerous
Supervised alcohol withdrawal provides people a safe environment to go through detox under the care of medical professionals. Unsupervised alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening because symptoms are unpredictable and can lead to more severe health conditions if left unmonitored and untreated.
1. Mild Symptoms That Escalate
Even mild withdrawal symptoms can lead to more serious conditions and severe symptoms. Some of the more severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms include the following:
- Fever: A fever can lead to rapid breathing, loss of consciousness, dehydration and seizures.
- High blood pressure: When a person has high blood pressure, they are more prone to heart attacks and strokes.
- Seizures: Seizures can be fatal, and even nonfatal seizures can cause dangerous falls that can result in head injuries or death.
- Dehydration: Vomiting, diarrhea, increased heart rate and high blood pressure can cause severe dehydration. Dehydration can be dangerous and lead to fainting and vital organ failure, such as kidney failure. Detoxing at home can be dangerous because it is difficult for people to recognize when they are dehydrated. Under supervised detox, medical professionals can monitor electrolytes and make sure the individual stays hydrated.
2. Delirium Tremens
The most serious symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are commonly associated with delirium tremens, which is a condition of alcohol withdrawal that can lead to death if it is not treated. Delirium tremens usually occurs in people who have struggled with alcohol use for 10 years or more, and it can cause complications such as hyperthermia, dangerously high fevers and cardiac arrhythmias.
Approximately 5% to 10% of people with a dependency on alcohol will experience delirium tremens, and about 5% to 15% of untreated delirium tremens cases will result in death. Death caused by delirium tremens is most often due to trauma, infections, metabolic complications or cardiovascular complications.
3. Vitamin Depletion
Severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms can also lead to vitamin depletion and malnourishment. Loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhea can lead to malnourishment because a person going through home detox may eat unhealthy foods or avoid eating altogether. Improper nutrition can worsen withdrawal symptoms or lead to vitamin deficiencies.
About 80% of people struggling with alcohol use disorder experience thiamine deficiency. Thiamine deficiency, also known as B1 deficiency, can cause a serious disorder known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy. This condition can cause impaired coordination, loss of control over eye movement and confusion. Wernicke’s encephalopathy can also lead to Korsakoff syndrome, which can cause confusion as well as difficulties with learning and memory.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) advises people against attempting alcohol detox at home if they struggle with alcohol use disorder. Instead, they should seek treatment. Without medical supervision, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can become severe quickly. There is no way to know how a person will react to the detox process or what symptoms they will experience.
What Does the Drug Withdrawal Process Look Like in a Professional Setting?
The drug withdrawal process in a professional setting provides individuals a safe environment, medical supervision and medical care for any health complications that may arise during the detox process. Medical professionals monitor patients to determine the severity of their symptoms and implement a treatment plan to ease the symptoms of alcohol or drug withdrawal.
Treatments in a professional setting can relieve the symptoms of withdrawal, but they can also be life-saving for some individuals. Professionals can provide emotional support, counseling, medical care and sometimes medications to ease the withdrawal process. Medical professionals also eliminate the risk of relapse because they are able to help individuals manage severe withdrawal symptoms using safe methods.
When you enter a professional detox program, you might undergo an intake exam so medical professionals can determine the type of care you will need. Medical professionals will also monitor you by regularly checking your blood pressure, temperature, breathing and heart rate.
If you need a higher level of medical services that are not provided in a treatment facility, medical professionals will transfer you to the appropriate facility and return you to the treatment facility when you are medically stable. When you undergo detox at a treatment facility, you also have the opportunity to receive therapy services or join group therapy to support your mental well-being.
Benefits of Medically Supervised Withdrawal
Medically supervised withdrawal provides individuals the support they need to begin a successful recovery — and in many cases, it also saves lives. People who undergo detox under medical supervision can rest easier knowing they are not alone and will receive care throughout the withdrawal process. Medically supervised withdrawal provides individuals with the following benefits:
1. Continual Supervision
Medically supervised withdrawal provides patients continual supervision to manage symptoms. This allows medical professionals to assess the severity of a person’s symptoms and implement a treatment plan that will work best for them. It also allows medical professionals to monitor symptoms throughout the withdrawal process and prevent symptoms from worsening. Medical supervision helps to eliminate the risk of relapse because professionals can help people manage their symptoms and reduce cravings.
2. Symptom Relief
Undergoing detox under medical supervision can significantly relieve withdrawal symptoms. By continually monitoring patients, medical professionals can determine the severity of symptoms and administer medications when needed. Medical professionals also provide relief from symptoms by making sure patients get the nutrients they need and stay hydrated during the detox process.
3. Medical Interventions
Professionals provide medical interventions when needed. Certain health complications can arise while detoxing, such as seizures, strokes, heart attacks and dehydration. Medical professionals can supervise patients for signs of these complications and provide medical interventions when necessary. Some medical interventions simply prevent or ease the symptoms of withdrawal, but other interventions are life-saving and necessary.
Detox in a Safe, Professional Setting
Deciding to begin the recovery process is a big step toward returning to a fulfilling life with family, friends and your community. Detox is the first step of recovery and should be completed in a safe setting where you can receive the support that you need.
Detoxing from drugs or alcohol at home is dangerous and, in many cases, life-threatening. Withdrawal symptoms can be overwhelming and difficult to manage, and in some cases, symptoms can result in death. Undergoing detox from certain drugs can result in relapse and fatal overdose if people attempt to detox at home without the support of medical supervision.
With professional help in a safe setting, recovery is possible. Medical professionals can support you throughout the detox process and ease withdrawal symptoms so you can begin recovery and take steps toward a healthier and more fulfilling life. If you or a loved one has a substance use disorder or is starting the detox process, contact us to learn more about how Gateway Foundation can help.