Drug Detoxification

What is Drug Detoxification?

Learn more about the drug detoxification process, the potential risks, and how to find appropriate treatment here.

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What is Detoxification?

Data from the Surgeon General’s office shows recovery from addiction is possible. Recent studies indicate approximately fifty percent of adults who once met the criteria for a substance use disorder (nearly twenty-five million people) are currently in stable remission and have been for one year or longer. A key component of their success is comprehensive detox and addiction treatment.1

Detoxification from drugs can be a complex, unpredictable, and sometimes dangerous process. For this reason, taking the first steps toward sobriety from drugs at an inpatient detoxification program is crucial. Detoxing under medical supervision offers a safe, supported environment where you can progress through the stages of detox under close medical and mental health support.

Drug Detoxification Definition

Detoxification, or detox, is defined as the process of clearing your body of alcohol or drugs. The goal of detox is to help you safely and effectively manage the physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms that accompany seeking sobriety. Unfortunately, with chronic substance use, your body develops a tolerance to the effects of a particular drug. Without drug detox, it becomes impossible for your body to function “normally” without taking your drug of choice.

Is Detoxification Good for the Body?

Drug use tends to dull pain and emotion. Many people who abuse drugs or alcohol do so to manage chronic pain or to help manage untreated mental health symptoms. Drug detoxification enables you to overcome the dependency on substances to manage physical or emotional pain. In addition, the detoxification process can also help you:

Drug detoxification looks different for everyone. Several factors, unique to the individual, play a role in deciding how long and challenging detoxing from drugs might be. For example, factors such as the type of drug, the severity of your addiction, how often and how long you have been using, whether you have any co-occurring mental or physical health conditions, and whether you’ve completed treatment before and experienced a relapse, all play a role in the drug detoxification process.

Detoxification Side Effects and Risk Factors

The side effects of drug detox can vary from person to person based on a wide array of factors.

Drug Detoxification Side Effects

Although symptoms of drug detox look different from person to person, and medical detox at an inpatient detoxification program can help alleviate many common detox symptoms, some are unavoidable. Examples of common drug detoxification symptoms include:

Severe Side Effects of Detoxification

Certain substances such as alcohol, opioids, and benzodiazepines can lead to serious detox side effects. Depending on the drug and the severity of your addiction, detox symptoms may include hallucinations, elevated heart rate, difficulties breathing, intense confusion, tremors, life-threatening seizures, and death.

Weight Loss

Another drug detox side effect that can be dangerous if not treated and monitored is weight loss. Common detoxification symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pains, and changes in appetite. Based on this list of symptoms, it is not unreasonable that someone undergoing drug detox might not follow a proper diet or eat as well as they should.

Excessive weight loss can lead to several dangerous medical complications that could require hospitalization to address. In a medical detoxification program, medical staff and nutrition and mental health experts can help you manage many of these challenging symptoms as you complete the drug addiction detoxification process.

Drug Detoxification Risk Factors

Recovering from addiction can be a complex and sometimes challenging journey. There are often several setbacks before one achieves lasting sobriety. One such setback is relapse. Statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration suggest as many as 60% of people, even those who completed an inpatient detoxification program and addiction treatment program, will experience relapse. 2


An overdose can occur if you have been sober for some time or are struggling to manage detoxification side effects and you use again. In some instances, it happens because the physical and psychological side effects of drug detoxification become too challenging to manage, leading you to start using or drinking again. Often, when this occurs, people consume higher amounts than they traditionally would to quickly manage their symptoms. They may also combine substances, further increasing their risk of overdose.

Drug Detox During Pregnancy

Drinking alcohol or using drugs during pregnancy can harm both the mother and her unborn child as many substances cross the placental barrier, directly affecting the baby’s health. Drug detox, especially unassisted or “cold turkey” detox, can put added stress on the fetus, leading to preterm labor or severe fetal distress. Suppose you are pregnant and ready to quit using drugs. In that case, it is crucial to do so in a supervised detoxification program where trained providers can help you manage your symptoms.

Rapid And Ultra-Rapid Detox Risks

Rapid or ultra-rapid detox involves putting someone under general anesthesia before flushing drugs from their system. Although this may sound easier than managing common detox symptoms, it is not without risk. This procedure has been linked to serious and potentially deadly side effects, including cardiac arrest. 

One study of seventy-five patients participating in a rapid detox program in a New York clinic showed that five patients experienced severe adverse reactions requiring hospitalizations, and two died. For this reason, and several other studies highlighting the risks of rapid and ultra-rapid detox, medically supported detox at an inpatient opioid detoxification treatment program remains the gold standard. 3

At Home Detoxification Risks

Choosing to detox from drugs at home can be dangerous, if not deadly. Often called cold turkey detox, detoxing without medical supervision can lead to several serious risks, including overdose, seizures, and severe heat dehydration. At home, in the absence of medical care, help may not arrive soon enough to help you manage severe detoxification side effects.

Detoxification Symptoms and Diets

The symptoms of detoxification will look different from person to person and from substance to substance. Certain drugs produce mild detoxification symptoms, whereas others have severe and potentially deadly side effects. In general, common signs of detoxification are the opposite of the typical effects of using the drug.

The most common withdrawal symptoms that occur regardless of the type of drug include sweating, problems with temperature, stomach disturbances, body aches and pains, appetite changes, sleep difficulties, and mood changes.

Mitigating Challenges of Detox

The best way to manage drug detoxification is by detoxing in a medically-assisted detox program. In addition, regular exercise, getting enough sleep, drinking water, and eating a healthy, balanced diet can also help manage withdrawal symptoms. 

The most common drug detoxification diets are rich in dark green, leafy vegetables, proteins, complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C, and dairy. All these dietary staples can help replenish the vitamins and nutrients your body lost due to substance abuse and throughout your detox journey. 4

Detoxification By Drug Type & Detox Process

The challenges associated with drug detox vary depending on the type of drug used. Some drugs produce more physical symptoms, while others have primarily psychological symptoms. The symptoms you experience when detoxing from a prescription opioid or another opioid drug will differ from those you experience when detoxing from a stimulant such as cocaine or heroin. It is important to remember that some drugs are dangerous to detox from, especially without medical support and guidance.

Drug Addiction Detoxification Process

Everyone has different needs when they begin a drug detox and addiction treatment program. The addiction detoxification process helps providers better understand your care needs to ensure you receive the most personalized treatment possible. The steps of the detox process include:

Detoxification Program at Alta Centers

Drug detox can occur in a variety of settings. Inpatient detoxification programs in Los Angeles, California provide 24/7 medical support and supervision throughout detox. Skilled medical and mental health providers will monitor your health and, if necessary, provide medications to help manage detox symptoms.

Detoxification is just the first step on a journey to sobriety. Detox itself is not a stand-alone treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. Once detox is complete, it is still necessary to address the physical aspects of addiction. At Alta Centers – California Rehab, we offer a residential detox and addiction treatment program where we provide counseling, support, education, and medically-assisted detox services to help you take your first steps towards freedom from drugs. To learn more about our programs, contact us today.