Alcohol and Drug Detox Programs: Types and What to Expect
Alcohol and drug detox can be an important first step in the recovery process for substance misuse and is often an entry point to substance use disorder (SUD) treatment.1 If you or a loved one is struggling, learning about detox can help you make an informed decision about your health. This page will help you learn more about detox, including:
- What detox is.
- Types of detox services.
- What to expect during detox.
- Medications used in detox.
- What happens after detox.
- How to find a detox program.
What Is Alcohol and Drug Detox?
Alcohol and drug detox is a set of interventions designed to manage acute intoxication and withdrawal.1 Detox can help:1
- Prevent or reduce withdrawal symptoms.
- Keep patients as comfortable and safe as possible throughout the withdrawal period.
- Address complications that may arise during withdrawal.
- Foster the transition into ongoing treatment (e.g., inpatient or outpatient rehab).
Why Is Alcohol and Drug Detox Important?
When a person takes certain substances regularly over a period of time, they may need more of the substance to feel its effects (e.g., tolerance).1, 2 As the body adapts to the presence of the substance, a person may experience withdrawal symptoms if they abruptly reduce or stop taking it (e.g., dependence).1, 2
Withdrawal symptoms and their severity can vary depending on several factors, such as:1
- A person’s age.
- The type of substance used.
- How long the substance was used.
- The route of administration (e.g., injecting, snorting, smoking).
- A person’s mental and physical health.
Withdrawal can be unpleasant and, in some cases, dangerous.1 Withdrawal from substances such as alcohol, opioids, and sedative-hypnotics (e.g., benzodiazepines) for example, can cause severe discomfort and potentially life-threatening symptoms such as seizures. Detox programs are important as they can help patients stay as comfortable and safe as possible during withdrawal.1
Even those struggling with a substance that is not likely to cause dangerous physical withdrawal symptoms (e.g., cocaine), may still benefit from a detox program due to other potential complications and risks associated with withdrawal, such as depression and suicidal behavior.1
Types of Alcohol and Drug Detox Programs
Medical detox programs typically last between 3 to 7 days and can take place in an inpatient or outpatient setting depending on a patient’s needs.1, 3
Inpatient Alcohol Detox Programs
Inpatient detox programs provide 24-hour care and supervision for patients who are intoxicated or experiencing withdrawal.1
There are several types of inpatient detox programs, which vary in the level of care provided. Inpatient medical detox centers provide intensive medical supervision from nurses, physicians, and other medical staff, which can be beneficial for patients who are currently intoxicated or are at risk of severe withdrawal.
Clinically managed residential detox may provide intensive medical supervision as well. However, others may provide minimally intensive medical oversight, sometimes referred to as “social detox.”1
Inpatient detox may benefit patients who:1
- Have a history of complicated withdrawal.
- Have severe addictions.
- Have co-occurring conditions (e.g., anxiety or depression).
- Have a risk of suicidal behavior.
- Do not have a supportive home environment.
Outpatient Alcohol Detox Programs
Outpatient detox programs are often less medically intensive compared to inpatient or residential detox.1 With an outpatient detox program, patients travel to a detox center for withdrawal treatment, which can take place in a range of settings, such as acute care hospitals or outpatient clinics.1 Outpatient detox aims to minimize withdrawal symptoms and help patients become medically stable and may provide referrals to more intensive care if necessary.1
Outpatient detox programs are typically staffed by a multidisciplinary team including physicians, nurses, addiction counselors, social workers, and other professionals.1 These programs range in the levels of care provided, including partial hospitalization programs (PHP) or intensive outpatient programs (IOP) that require patients to be onsite several hours a day. These programs can be less intensive depending on a patient’s needs.1
Outpatient detox may benefit patients who:1
- Do not have a history of complicated withdrawal.
- Have less severe addictions.
- Have stable co-occurring conditions (if present).
- Are not a danger to themselves or others.
- Have a supportive home environment.
- Have access to reliable transportation.
What to Expect During Alcohol and Drug Detox
The process for alcohol and drug detox can vary; however, patients can expect to receive support from several professionals to help them stay as comfortable and safe as possible during withdrawal.1 The detox process typically involves three steps, including:1
- Evaluation. This involves a comprehensive assessment that considers a patient’s medical and psychiatric history, current life situation (e.g., home environment and social support), and drug testing to determine the correct detox
- Stabilization. Patients receive support to help them through the acute withdrawal phase. This may include medication and other interventions so patients can achieve a medically stable state and learn about further post-detox treatment.
- Fostering a patient’s entry into treatment. Patients receive assistance with entering an appropriate rehab for their needs.
Medications Used During Alcohol or Drug Detox
Medical detox medications are often used to ease withdrawal symptoms, especially for withdrawal from alcohol, opioids, and sedative-hypnotics (e.g., benzodiazepines).1 Patients may also receive medications as needed for additional symptoms that arise during withdrawal.1
Alcohol Withdrawal Medications
Alcohol withdrawal medications may include:1, 4
- Benzodiazepines, such as chlordiazepoxide, diazepam, lorazepam, or oxazepam. These medications may be used to minimize alcohol withdrawal symptoms and prevent the progression to more severe symptoms.
- Barbiturates, such as phenobarbital. These are sometimes used to help minimize withdrawal symptoms. These are less commonly used due to risks and high addictive potential.
- Anticonvulsants, such as carbamazepine or gabapentin. These may be used to reduce mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms, alleviate distress, or prevent seizures.
Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Medications
Benzodiazepine withdrawal medications may include:1, 5
- Benzodiazepines, which may involve a slow taper using the current benzodiazepine, or, in some cases, patients may be switched to a longer-acting benzodiazepine as a substitute for a shorter-acting benzodiazepine.
- Phenobarbital, which may be used to mitigate withdrawal symptoms and prevent the development of severe symptoms.
- Anticonvulsants, such as carbamazepine and valproate, may be used to treat mild withdrawal symptoms.
Opioid withdrawal Medications
Opioid withdrawal medications include:1, 6
- Methadone, an opioid agonist medication that is one of the most common medications used to ease opioid withdrawal effects as methadone is a long-acting opioid that is commonly tapered over time as withdrawal symptoms lessen. Methadone can only be administered in licensed methadone clinics.
- Buprenorphine, a partial opioid agonist medication used to prevent or reduce withdrawal symptoms.
- Clonidine, a nonopioid medication that may be used off-label to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms.
- Lofexidine, another nonopioid medication that was approved in the U.S. in 2018 to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms.
What Happens After Drug or Alcohol Detox?
Although detox is an important part of the recovery process, detox alone does not address the behavioral, psychological, and social problems associated with addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), recommends ongoing treatment to address these underlying issues.1, 7
Like detox, post-detox treatment can take place in a variety of settings, including inpatient or residential drug and alcohol rehab or outpatient facilities.1, 8 Treatment can vary but may involve a combination of:8
- Behavioral therapies.
- Participation in mutual support groups.
- Evaluation and treatment for co-occurring disorders.
- Long-term follow-up and aftercare to minimize the risk of relapse.
How to Find an Alcohol and Drug Detox Center
If you or a loved one are struggling with substance misuse, you should know that treatment is available. If you want to learn more about detox programs, you have options:
- Talk to your doctor to discuss your situation and ask for referrals.
- Use our rehab directory to find detox centers near you. You can filter you can your search by insurance, locations, and services offered.
It’s never too late to start the path to recovery. If you have questions about recovery, contact American Addiction Centers (AAC) at to speak to a caring admissions navigator about your detox and rehab options. You can also easily verify your insurance online.
Frequently Asked Questions About Detox
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