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Medical detox is many people’s first stop on the road to recovery. As the highest level of care in addiction treatment, people in detox will receive 24-hour access to medical professionals that are trained in treating drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms and complications that may come with it. Medical detox is usually just one aspect of long-term addiction treatment that’s designed to help facilitate long-term sobriety. However, without it, withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous. 

Learn more about medical detox and how it may help you achieve lasting sobriety.

What Is Medical Detox?

Medical detox is the highest level of care in addiction treatment, involving 24-hour medically managed treatment services. This level of care is designed to help people that are likely to go through serious and even dangerous withdrawal symptoms. However, people with other related or unrelated medical conditions or complications can also get treatment in a medical detox program.

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Detox can involve medications that are used to help wean you off of a drug slowly to help avoid serious, life-threatening conditions like delirium tremens.

It may also involve medications that help control symptoms to help you through the withdrawal period with as little discomfort as possible. For some medications, medical detox or detox in a hospital setting is essential to stop using drugs safely.

When you first enter addiction treatment, you will go through an assessment process that includes a medical evaluation.

If you have high levels of medical needs or if you are likely to go through severe withdrawal symptoms, you may need to go through medical detox. If you have high-level physical or psychological needs without the need for 24-hour medically managed treatment, you may instead go through inpatient or residential treatment.

Medical detox facilities often have on-staff clinical professionals that help connect people to continued addiction treatment after detox.

Frequently Asked Detox Treatment Questions

Not everyone who goes through addiction treatment will need to start with medical detox. If you’re looking for addiction treatment services and you’re wondering if you might need detox services, there are a few things to consider.

One of the most important considerations is whether or not you’ve developed a chemical dependence on your drug of choice. For instance, binge drinking is common on college campuses, but not everyone who drinks becomes addicted or chemically dependent. Many college students binge drink on the weekend and continue to attend classes and make good grades throughout the week. Binging has its risks, but it doesn’t mean your brain is adapted to the drug. You can identify a dependence by withdrawal symptoms that occur when you skip a dose, cut back, or stop using.

Another consideration is the type of drug  in which you’ve become dependent. During withdrawal, opioids can cause uncomfortable flu-like withdrawal symptoms that are difficult to get through without relapsing, especially when you’re on your own. Stimulants can cause you to experience insomnia and psychological symptoms like deep depression and even thoughts of suicide. Both opioids and stimulants can be potentially dangerous in certain circumstances, but they aren’t typically fatal.

On the other hand, central nervous system depressants like alcohol, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates can cause potentially deadly symptoms like seizures and delirium tremens. Medical detox can dramatically lower your chances of experiencing these deadly symptoms.

When in doubt, the best way to determine whether or not you need medical detox is to speak to a doctor or clinician about your specific needs.

The length of time you spend in medical detox will depend on your specific needs. Like other aspects of treatment, detox will be tailored to you as an individual. Your needs in detox will depend on the type of drug you were taking, the length of time you were taking it, and the size of the dose you were used to. Those and other factors can affect how quickly you start to feel withdrawal symptoms and how long they last.

Generally speaking, acute withdrawal can last between five to ten days. Some drugs, like alcohol, can cause post-acute withdrawal symptoms that last for longer. If you still have medical or psychological needs that require a high level of care after detox, you might go through an inpatient program that offers 24-hour medically monitored care.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) emphasizes that detox is an important part of the treatment process, but it’s not all you need to treat the disease of addiction effectively. Addiction is a chronic disease that affects the reward center of the brain. It can cause changes that cause powerful compulsions to use, even after you’ve gone through detox and the drug has been out of your system.

People who stop using addictive drugs after developing a substance use disorder can experience relapse rates as high as 60 percent. In many cases, this can be because of unaddressed underlying issues and powerful triggers and cravings. To effectively facilitate long-lasting recovery, long term addiction treatment can help you identify triggers, address underlying issues like mental health problems, and create relapse prevention strategies.

Drug and alcohol detox is the safest way to get through withdrawal symptoms. Your likelihood of experiencing life-threatening symptoms greatly decreases with medical help. For instance, with early treatment of delirium tremens, the mortality rate of the condition is less than five percent.

If you’ve decided to stop using a drug you’ve developed a chemical dependence on, it’s important for you to seek professional advice about detox as soon as possible. If you or someone you know has recently stopped using a drug, you may only have a few hours to a day before you start experiencing uncomfortable symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal and other central nervous system depressants can cause life-threatening symptoms within a few days after quitting.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use disorder that may need medical detox, it’s important to seek medical advice before you decide to quit cold turkey. Quitting abruptly is more likely to lead to dangerous symptoms or a relapse. Learn more about your detox options today.


American Society of Addiction Medicine. (n.d.). What is the ASAM Criteria? from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016, February). 8: Medical detoxification. from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, January). How effective is drug addiction treatment? from

Rahman, A. (2018, November 18). Delirium Tremens (DT). from

U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2019, July 31). Delirium tremens: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. from

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