Meeting with a doctorMedical detox can help you or your loved one experience a safe withdrawal from drugs and alcohol while facing a reduced risk of complications. Medical detox is available at many addiction treatment centers and is an effective, evidence-based treatment for drug and alcohol dependence.

Continue reading to learn more about what medical detox is and what to expect from this treatment at a drug and alcohol rehab center.

What Is Medical Detox?

Medical detox is the first stage of treatment and recovery from a substance use disorder. This treatment manages and reduces drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms so patients can feel more comfortable and less sick. Withdrawal can be an extremely difficult and painful experience for many, but medical detox aims to make this recovery phase more bearable by minimizing symptoms.

Most medical detox treatments involve the use of medications that reduce specific symptoms such as headaches, anxiety, and nausea. Patients withdrawing from opioids and alcohol can be given medications designed to reduce or eliminate all symptoms associated with those withdrawal syndromes. The primary benefits to receiving medical detox are being monitored closely by nurses who can anticipate and prevent complications, and feeling comfortable and at ease for the duration of withdrawal.

Who Needs Medical Detox?

Medical detox is for anyone physically dependent on drugs and alcohol and experiences a range of symptoms when stopping these drugs abruptly. Alcohol, heroin, painkillers, benzodiazepines, cocaine, methamphetamine, and ADHD medications are all habit-forming substances that often require medical detox treatment. Quitting these substances abruptly can be life-threatening for some and lead to complications including seizures, dehydration, and organ failure—especially when someone tries quitting without medical supervision or treatment.

Physical dependence on drugs and alcohol happens after someone develops a tolerance for the substance they’re using. The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines tolerance as needing a higher amount of the substance to achieve its desired effects, or experiencing a diminished effect when using the usual amount. For example, a person who develops a tolerance for alcohol may need six beers to feel happy and relaxed, but may feel neither of those effects as they did in the past when drinking only two beers.

Anyone who becomes tolerant to one or more substances is at risk for becoming physically dependent and experiencing withdrawal symptoms when quitting abruptly.

What Happens In Medical Detox?

Medical detox usually takes place in a residential / inpatient setting where patients stay for the duration of treatment. Each patient’s treatment regimen is unique, based on factors including the drugs they were using, the severity of withdrawal symptoms, and comorbid health conditions, to name a few. Patients are evaluated carefully by nurses, doctors, psychologists, and other medical professionals prior to starting treatment, and receive their own customized medical detox plan.

Generally, patients who receive medical detox are monitored around the clock as they go through withdrawal, and many are given medications that reduce their symptoms. Patients are welcome to walk around or exercise during withdrawal, though many choose to rest and relax in bed.

Here’s how medical detox works by substance.


According to the World Health Organization, alcohol withdrawal symptoms typically begin within six to 24 hours after the last drink and can last for up to 10 days. Patients whose symptoms are mild are given medications such as ibuprofen to reduce headaches. Patients whose symptoms are moderate to severe are given diazepam to control and stabilize them.

Diazepam is a benzodiazepine medication that can slow down the central nervous system when it speeds up during alcohol withdrawal. As a result, diazepam reduces the risk of seizures, hallucinations, dehydration, and dangerous fluctuations in heart rate and body temperature—all of which are life-threatening complications associated with alcohol withdrawal. Patients may stay on diazepam for several hours or days until symptoms have completely resolved.


Opioid withdrawal feels similar to the flu and can last anywhere between four to 20 days based on the type of opioid used.

Patients whose symptoms are mild are typically given medications that manage them. Still, patients whose symptoms are moderate to severe are usually given opioid replacement medications such as buprenorphine or methadone.

These medications act on the same receptors as other opioids, but don’t produce pleasurable effects like extreme happiness, which is why they are highly effective at reducing withdrawal symptoms. Many doctors will gradually reduce the patient’s dosage of buprenorphine or methadone until they are no longer experiencing withdrawal symptoms.


The benzodiazepine withdrawal period is one of the longest, as it can last two to eight weeks or longer. Medical detox for benzodiazepines is usually performed as a tapering method. The benzodiazepine that was used is replaced with an equivalent dosage of diazepam, then the dosage is reduced gradually over time until the patient stops experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Benzodiazepines should never be discontinued abruptly, as doing so could lead to seizures.


Medical detox for cocaine, methamphetamine, and amphetamines focuses on treating specific withdrawal symptoms, usually lasting between three and five days. Stimulants tend to produce more psychological withdrawal symptoms, including agitation and depression that require treatment with sedatives and antipsychotics.

Many patients stay on psychiatric medications for a few months after acute withdrawal symptoms have ended, and eventually transition into drug rehab programs to receive behavioral therapy.

What Are the Benefits Of Medical Detox?

Medical detox is the safest way to recover from drug and alcohol dependence. It involves withdrawing from drugs and alcohol while being closely monitored and cared for by a team of highly experienced medical professionals.

Withdrawal can be extremely dangerous and risky—particularly for those withdrawing from alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opioids. Alcohol and benzodiazepines come with the risk of seizures and heart failure, while opioids come with the risk of relapse and overdose.

Medical detox allows patients to be treated with medications that can effectively reduce their symptoms and make them feel more comfortable. For instance, the opioid withdrawal medications buprenorphine and methadone can only be prescribed by doctors who receive special training and certification on how to use these medications responsibly and appropriately.

Going through withdrawal on your own can be scary and difficult, especially if you don’t have medical training, access to the necessary medications, or friends and family who can help.

Medical detox can keep you safe, reduce your risk of complications, and provide you with all the comforts you need as you recover from drug and alcohol dependence. Additionally, all medical detox treatments are customized for each patient to ensure you or your loved one can experience a full recovery.