When someone is addicted to alcohol or drugs, they will often need to go through a detoxification (detox) process, as an important first step in their recovery from addiction.

Detox is based on the principle that someone who is physically unwell will struggle to tackle any underlying mental health problems. Therefore, the purpose of detox is to tackle the physical side of an addiction as a first step, so that patients are prepared to address the psychological features of their addiction, as part of an intensive addiction rehab programme.

What is detox?

Detox is the process by which all traces of alcohol and drugs are removed from the body, ensuring that a person is physically stable and ready to start therapy.

Alcohol or drug addiction results in people's bodies becoming used to having these substances in their system. When these substances are gradually reduced and removed during detox, the brain will have to adjust to the sudden drop in these chemicals. This typically causes people to experience a set of unpleasant symptoms known as 'withdrawal symptoms'.

The detox process aims to minimise the negative impact of withdrawal symptoms, and make the experience as safe and as comfortable as possible. The most effective form of detox is one that is medically assisted and supported by trained specialists. This usually happens within a specialist detox centre or facility, under the care of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals. Attempting to detox on your own is rarely successful and it is likely that people will experience unnecessary withdrawal symptoms and become de-motivated by many failed attempts.

What happens during a medically assisted drug or alcohol detox?

Medical assessment

The first step in a medically assisted detox is for patients to have a thorough medical assessment in order to build an accurate picture of their individual needs. During this assessment, an expert will gather information on a patient’s medical history and details about their addiction, and use this to develop a personalised detox plan.

Withdrawal

When the amount of alcohol/drugs in a patient’s system is gradually reduced, they will typically begin to experience withdrawal symptoms. The type of withdrawal symptoms that are experienced, as well as how severe these are, depend on how long a person has been addicted to alcohol or drugs, the type of substance that they are addicted to, how much they have been consuming, and their general mental and physical health.

It is important to understand that each person experiences detox in a unique way, and each new detox is entirely different, regardless of whether someone has gone through detox previously.

Withdrawal can result in a wide range of physical and psychological symptoms.

Physical withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting
  • Shaking and shivering
  • Sweating
  • Runny nose
  • High temperature and/or chills
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Headaches
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Exhaustion
  • Vivid and unpleasant dreams

Psychological withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Paranoia
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Agitation
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Intense cravings for the substance

The most severe withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Hallucinations
  • Delirium
  • Seizures

Medication

In order to help patients to cope with withdrawal, they will be given appropriately controlled medication as part of the detox process. There is no medication that prevents all withdrawal symptoms, but some types of medication can help to ease anxiety and depression, enable sufficient sleep, and counteract as many other problems as possible.

Around the clock support

Research has shown that supportive and compassionate care is just as important as medication in enabling successful detox and the best possible outcomes for patients. Therefore, each person going through detox will be carefully monitored, 24 hours a day, for the duration of the process.

How long does detox last?

On average, the detox process typically lasts for between 7 and 10 days. However, this can vary for different people and depends on a number of factors including:

  • How much alcohol/drugs they have been consuming
  • The severity of their withdrawal symptoms
  • Their physical and mental functioning

Following detox, patients will be ready to progress to an alcohol or drug rehab programme, where they will receive intensive psychological therapy. Alcohol and drug rehab usually takes place as part of a 28-day programme.

Don't let alcohol or drug addiction take over your life. To find out about our free addiction assessment, click here. For more details on the full range of Priory Services, please call 0800 840 3219 or click here to make an enquiry.