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Drug and Alcohol Detoxification

Prolonged heavy use, or abuse, of alcohol and drugs conditions the body of the chemically dependent person to a steady intake of substances that are poisonous and peremptory. Chemical dependency and addiction are synonymous and interchangeable terms defined as “an overwhelming compulsion for immediate gratification without regard for long term deleterious effects.” The alcoholic or drug addict has lost the ability to control his or her use of the intoxicant. When a person is ready to stop using, or is perhaps forced to stop because of legal or medical mandate, serious complications can arise. Upon cessation, the addict experiences severe, sometimes fatal, withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal from alcohol, narcotics, methamphetamines, cannabis, opiates or other intoxicants causes physical symptoms that may be mild, such as fever, nausea and anxiety, or perhaps violent in nature (spasmodic episodes of seizure and delirium tremens, for instance). Withdrawal from addictive drugs and alcohol can also cause hallucination, paranoia, dyspepsia, and excitation. Elimination of the toxins in the body that trigger the craving for addictive substances is the process of detoxification. Treatment of these symptoms in a clinical, structured manner is critically vital to successful recovery from addiction.


Withdrawal refers to the manifestation of physical symptoms and emotional distress experienced by those who cease using a substance to which they are chemically dependent. The dependent person who suddenly stops, or drastically reduces, intake of the psychoactive substance (drugs, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, inhalants) undergoes some traumatic reactions. These reactions, if not treated by knowledgeable and competent specialists familiar with the symptoms, can be so uncomfortable that the addict may resist or abandon recovery attempts. A treatment facility familiar with the symptoms of withdrawal helps the addict through this difficult first step in recovery.

Alcohol Withdrawal

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal set in within hours after the alcoholic stops drinking, and may last for several days to a week after cessation of consumption. These symptoms are classic and predictable and can be as benign as physical discomfort, or they may be life-threatening physical or psychotic episodes. In order of their severity, here are the recognized withdrawal symptoms experienced by alcoholics:

  • Nervousness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shakiness
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Acute Anxiety
  • Disorientation, agitation, and aggression
  • Hallucination
  • Psychosomatic disorders
  • Delirium tremens
  • Seizures
  • Death

Pharmaceutical or Illegal Drug Withdrawal

Symptoms of withdrawal from pharmaceuticals and illegal street drugs are similar to those experienced by alcoholics, but the severity of reactions may be more dramatic and longer lasting. Since addicts tend to be less homogenous in their choices of intoxicants, it is far more difficult to predict the manifestation of withdrawal behaviors. The most common withdrawal symptoms listed below are general in nature, but specialists with experience in treating withdrawal have seen bizarre and unusual behavior of every kind a person is addicted to a variety of substances:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Profuse perspiration
  • Hypertension
  • Violent shaking
  • Psychotic episodes
  • Seizures
  • Death


Detoxification is the first stage of recovery from alcohol or drug dependence. Eliminating toxins in the body is critical to the success of any successive treatment for addiction. It is a process that may last for a few days or, in severe cases, two to three weeks. Detoxification in a medical facility with a staff experienced in treatment of withdrawal symptoms is recommended. The addict in withdrawal may be given intravenous fluids for hydration, mild sedatives, and certain medications to ease anxiety, reduce dyspepsia, and prevent seizures. During this period the addict is introduced to a diet conducive to physical recovery and each patient is continuously monitored for any indication of life-threatening withdrawal symptoms such as seizures or cardiovascular distress.

Rapid detoxification techniques are sometimes used for persons addicted to opiates and, less frequently, for alcoholics exhibiting delirium tremens. When accelerated detoxification is indicated, the patient undergoes general anesthesia and an opioid antagonist is administered. This antagonist eases the discomfort of withdrawal and reduces physical shock by a more gradual adjustment to abstinence.

Detoxification is a cleansing process by definition. Alternative methods of detoxification such as colonic hydrotherapy, juice fasting, saunas and aquatic therapy techniques may be offered by certain holistic treatment facilities, but the effectiveness of these alternative detoxification treatment programs has not been proven. Such strategies may be dangerous – even fatal – if an individual requires anti-seizure medication.


Detoxification treatment at an inpatient treatment center or a hospital is a recommended course of action for any addicted person seeking recovery. After the essential physical withdrawal symptoms have been addressed, which generally takes two to seven days, the treatment programs that have been proven to work focus on teaching the addict abstinence coping skills. A treatment plan for continuing steps toward recovery is developed that includes goal setting, behavioral modification techniques, use of self-help manuals, introduction to 12 step programs, counseling and follow-up care at a treatment center.