If you’ve admitted you have an addiction disorder and are trying to get up the nerve to go for drug or alcohol detox, your imagination may be filled with chilling “withdrawal” images: the heroin addict groaning on a dirty cot, the alcoholic shaking in the throes of delirium tremens, the “rapid detox” patient who died from an overdose of detox drugs. Is there any guaranteed-safe way to get clean, or are you taking almost as serious a risk as continuing in addiction?
Detox can be dangerous—but if managed properly, it’s a lot safer than the horror stories would have you believe. Here are our top tips for making it as risk-free as possible.
1. Always undergo detox under proper medical management.
If you remember nothing else, remember that the riskiest form of detox is the kind that’s undertaken cold turkey and in private. Your pride may tell you no one else needs to know, but the facts say you’re taking a major chance with your life if you neglect medical advice and supervision. It’s possible to vomit to the point of deadly dehydration, suffer heart failure or have a lethal seizure. Even withdrawals that aren’t likely to cause dangerous physical symptoms may confuse your brain to the point you do something life-threatening: cocaine treatment centers, for instance, frequently see patients who get so depressed over loss of the drug’s mood-boosting effect that they begin to fantasize about suicide.
Always go to a professional detox center where you can withdraw under trained supervision, with quick access to emergency medical treatment.
2. When registering at a detox center, give your treatment supervisors all the details on other existing medical conditions, whether you’ve ever overdosed or tried to detox before, and how your body and brain have reacted to both doses and deprivation.
Detox center staff are familiar with typical withdrawal symptoms for their specialty drugs, but they can’t predict definitely what will happen in any individual case. However, if they’re well briefed on the individual patient’s physical condition and likely reactions, they’ll be best equipped to plan how much supervision you’ll need, what they should watch for and any medical supplies that should be kept at the ready.
Since it’s possible you’ll forget some important points—or be tempted to decide they aren’t that important—it’s a good idea to write out your medical-history summary in advance, preferably with help from your doctor or a trusted friend.
3. Have a frank discussion with your treatment providers about whether medications should be used to ease your withdrawal symptoms.
With some drugs, notably benzodiazepines, the potential dangers of cold-turkey withdrawal are so great that doctors regularly use the “taper method”—slowly giving less and less of the addictive drug so the body can gradually get used to doing without it. Some other treatment providers, including many alcohol and heroin detox centers, routinely substitute an alternate, less dangerous drug to ease withdrawal.
Although many find medication-aided detox helpful, it’s not without its dangers—especially when the “taper-off drug” is potentially addictive in itself. (Most people in methadone or suboxone rehab know all too well how hard it can be to get off a drug that was originally prescribed to treat another addiction.) If your chosen detox provider uses medication in treatment, make sure you’re clear on the risks, and consider all possible alternatives before agreeing.
4. Know your addictive drug’s possible withdrawal symptoms—and tell your treatment providers immediately if anything starts to develop.
While detox providers are trained to spot potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms, your own “inside knowledge” will often sound the first alert. Even if it doesn’t seem that serious at first, don’t wait to see what happens—the symptoms might turn incapacitating without warning. Let your detox supervisor know immediately if you feel you’re about to vomit, breathing seems to become more difficult, you’re finding it hard to think clearly or anything at all feels “strange.” Even if it turns out nothing serious is wrong, you’ll be glad to have your providers take action to ease your physical and emotional discomfort.
5. Make sure to stay well-hydrated and well nourished throughout.
With some forms of withdrawal, notably alcohol detox, getting enough food is believed to reduce risks of the worst symptoms developing. Adequate hydration is even more important: most detox comes with the risk of vomiting/diarrhea and subsequent dehydration. Arrange to have nutritious food (that carries minimum risk of exacerbating vomiting) and water close at hand during your detox. If you become ill to the point of incapacitation, you may be put on intravenous feeding.
6. Stay lying down as much as possible, preferably on your side with head elevated in case of vomiting.
Even if you don’t feel all that sick, chances are your coordination and judgment will be affected by withdrawal. If you try to get up and move about, you run the risk of falling and injuring yourself. Besides, getting all the physical rest you can will make the overall detox experience easier. If you feel you must get up for any reason, ask a treatment provider to keep an eye on you.
7. Don’t assume you’re “cured” once the worst of the withdrawal symptoms seem to be over.
You may continue to experience periodic physical symptoms or mood swings for several days. Even if you don’t, recurrent cravings to return to the drug will probably keep surfacing for months, especially after you return to your everyday world with its old stresses and situations you’ve long associated with drug use. For this reason, most medical experts recommend that detox patients stay at the detox center, or another rehab facility, for up to three months of inpatient care before being officially discharged. It may seem like a lot of unnecessary time, but the counseling and support you’ll receive may make the difference between quick relapse and long-term sobriety.
And if you haven’t gotten a complete physical checkup during detox, schedule one as soon as possible. Although it’s unlikely that detox itself will cause undetected physical complications, the earlier period of drug use may have done damage to your heart, liver or other organs.
8. Once you’re officially finished with detox, do everything you possibly can to stay completely clean.
There’s some evidence that second (and subsequent) detoxes are frequently worse than the first, so the final way to avoid detox damage is to do everything possible to ensure your current detox “takes” for life. Know your likely relapse triggers and make a point of avoiding them. Stay active in sobriety support groups. Get long-term therapy. And no matter how long you’ve been clean, don’t ever give in to the temptation to take “just one.” The best and safest detox is the kind that proves permanent.
Inland Detox, the top drug and alcohol detox center in southern California, is located in the Temecula Valley. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction and need a safe, professionally managed detox option, please call us at (888) 739-8296.