Drug detox & withdrawal

The brave steps toward recovery from a drug addiction start with seeking treatment. While many are apprehensive about the process of a drug detox and withdrawal symptoms, when assisted in a supportive environment, those struggling with a drug addiction can safely overcome dependence. It starts with understanding drug detox and the withdrawal symptoms from illicit and prescription drugs.

What is a drug detox?

Drug detox is a process in which the body clears drugs from the system. During this period individuals will experience withdrawal. Detox and withdrawal symptoms require the assistance and expertise of a GP to ease discomfort. Detoxing from drugs will also depend on the type of drug used.

What is drug withdrawal?

Drug withdrawal occurs during detox. It is the substance is significantly reduced or no longer in the body. Because a drug dependency causes chemical changes in the brain, both the body and the brain must adjust to the absence of the drug, and work to reach a state of balance or homeostasis (Very Well Mind). Withdrawal symptoms are the result of this process.

Withdrawal can be unpleasant but with the support of a healthcare provider and rehab, it can be safely managed. The severity of the withdrawal is dependent on the length of use and the type of drug involved.

Drug addiction treatment and therapy can help you successfully manage and overcome the symptoms of drug withdrawal.

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Drug withdrawal symptoms

The severity and the period of withdrawal symptoms during drug detox are influenced by the following factors:

  • The substance used
  • The period of dependence
  • The methods used for ingestion (smoking, injecting)
  • Hereditary factors and biology
  • Comorbid medical and psychological conditions.

Very Well Mind lists the following drug withdrawal symptoms:

  • Mood changes
  • Muscle aches
  • Headaches
  • Shakiness
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Vomiting
  • Tremors
  • Delirium and Seizures (in severe cases).
  • The physical symptoms of withdrawal can last for a few days to a week, but psychological withdrawal can last longer.

Detox & Withdrawal from stimulants

Stimulants such as cocaine, crack cocaine, speed (amphetamine) Ritalin/concerta, and Adderall, will increase normal levels of central nervous system activity.

These substances are highly addictive especially when used for a lengthy period. Medscape defines the following withdrawal symptoms:

  • Cravings
  • Aches
  • Chills
  • Shakiness
  • Poor Concentration
  • Tremors
  • Exhaustion
  • Depression
  • Panic and Anxiety
  • Seizures
  • Delirium.

Detoxing from depressants

A depressant is a psychoactive drug that greatly influences brain and central nervous system function. Alcohol is an example of a depressant drug.

For those who depend on depressants, larger amounts of these substances are used and ingested over time to achieve the same effect. When drug use is increased to produce the hire levels of intoxication or release, it is known as drug tolerance. It makes for a difficult withdrawal that is best managed with drug treatment.

Benzodiazepines, opiates, barbiturates, and substances such as alcohol are all examples of depressants. Withdrawal symptoms from depressants include:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Tremors
  • Dizziness
  • Psychosis
  • Delirium
  • Seizures.
  • Medical support for withdrawal from barbiturates is important. Quitting these substances can lead to circulatory problems, hyperthermia, and even death.

Detox from opiates/opioids

The Clinical Guidelines for Withdrawal Management and Treatment of Drug Dependence reveals that opiates such as heroin, codeine, Tramadol, Fentanyl, and opiate substitutes such as Morphine can cause health risks during the withdrawal process. Short-acting opioids such as heroin create withdrawal symptoms up to 10 days while long-acting opioids cause withdrawal of up to 20 days. The risk of relapse requires a high level of support that is provided by an experienced addiction therapist.

Withdrawal symptoms from opiates/opioids include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Perspiration
  • Muscle cramps
  • Hot and cold sensations
  • Diarrhoea
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia.

Those withdrawing from opiates should be monitored to manage complications.

Detoxing from hallucinogens

Hallucinogens consist of LSD, magic mushrooms, and dissociative drugs such as Ketamine. These substances alter perception, mood, and emotions. While the risks of withdrawal symptoms are not as complex compared to depressants or opiates, the effect of this class of drug on behaviour can lead to self-harm, recklessness, and injury to others. It can also cause long term psychological effects such as:

  • Paranoia
  • Mood disturbances
  • Changes in visual perception
  • Confusion and lack of organisation.

Individuals are also at risk of developing Persisting Perception Disorder which causes continuous hallucinations, halos around objects, and poor judgment of object dimensions.

Detoxing from Cannabis

Cannabis is the most widely used recreational drug consisting of unique properties depending on the strain of the cannabis plant. For those who frequently smoke cannabis, there is a high risk of dependency. Detox and withdrawal from cannabis involves the following withdrawal symptoms:

  • Poor appetite
  • Irritability
  • Mood changes
  • Cold Sweats
  • Cannabis Cravings
  • Digestive Problems
  • Depression.

As cannabis is considered a ‘more acceptable’ social drug, it is readily available and also permitted for medical use. Frequent ingestion of cannabis causes a brain dependency which makes the first 72 hours of withdrawal a difficult process (Healthline). This also makes relapse increasingly high. It is best to seek the support of a medical doctor to overcome a cannabis addiction.

a woman going through an alcohol detox assessment

How to undergo a drug detox

A drug detox should always be supported with the professionalism of a medical doctor. Owing to the risks of withdrawal symptoms from drug classes such as depressants and stimulants, it is necessary to seek the appropriate medical attention whether you are detoxing at home or rehab treatment.

Home drug detox

A home detox offers the comfort of a familiar environment; however, detox from drugs requires supportive medication to ease difficult symptoms. For example, a detox and withdrawal from opiates requires clinical supervision up to 4 times a day to help with a safe and effective process. A GP should be sought first if you are considering a home drug detox.

The Pros and Cons of Detoxing from Drugs at Home

  • May be suitable for mild drug dependency
  • Less expensive.
  • Risky and least effective
  • Lack of professional support
  • Higher risk of relapse.

Medically Assisted Drug Detox

A medically assisted drug detox can manage and alleviate the uncomfortable symptoms of a withdrawal. This is primarily performed in a private rehab setting or in some cases, the NHS may provide a medically assisted detox where deemed necessary. The process depends on individual factors from affordability to the nature of the drug dependence.

The Benefits of a Medically Assisted Drug Detox

  • In some cases medication is issued to alleviate withdrawal symptoms
  • Medically supervised detox programme
  • Professional clinical support for addiction to depressants (alcohol), benzodiazepines, and opiates
  • Easy transition into a rehab programme.

two women supporting each other

Preventing a Relapse

Drug detox and managing withdrawal symptoms are the first steps to recovery. For individuals who have been taking drugs for a long time, it is likely they have developed a tolerance and a substance dependency. Drug use is often sought as a coping mechanism to conceal emotions or escape reality. It reinforces the connection between the pleasure of the drug’s effects and unwanted emotions or thoughts. This creates a vicious cycle of dependence.

Treating the underlying causes of drug dependency

Individuals who are struggling with a drug addiction and reliant on substance use to deal with day to day life or past trauma, underlying mental health issues may re-appear if therapy is not sought. Therapy for addiction and other mental health problems can help individuals steer away from possible relapse. By treating the underlying causes of drug dependency, it removes the need for maladaptive coping strategies, redirects cravings and minimizes methods of concealing negative emotions, memories, and thought processes. The assistance of an addiction specialist and therapist will help overcome these challenges and encourage recovery from drug dependency.

man getting help for alcoholism

Residential rehab

A residential rehab is a private rehab programme. Individuals will remain at the facility for the duration of treatment without access to the outside world.

This encourages exclusive focus on the recovery process and removes one from social, environmental, and even familiar triggers.

A private rehabilitation programme introduces therapy provided by an addiction counsellor. Both individual and group therapy are encouraged and the underlying reasons for addiction explored.

Individuals are taught how to cope, how to identify triggers, and how to manage cravings to prevent a relapse. A holistic treatment programme is also beneficial because it introduces healthy lifestyle options for improved recovery. Focus is on the mind, body and spiritual connection which is not only important while in therapy but also outside of the inpatient process. Each of these tools are applied in real-life settings helping to decrease the occurrence of a drug relapse.

Outpatient services & support groups

Outpatient programmes are suited to those with an intermediate drug use problem and not a dependency. It includes attendance of therapy and drug management meetings but outside of a rehab centre. Individuals will continue to work and remain in the same environments while receiving treatment.

The NHS and related charities offer programmes for those who are struggling with a substance dependence and mental health problems. By receiving a referral from a medical doctor, a professional assessment can assist in accessing the programmes often at a more affordable rate. Outpatient programmes can make a significant difference by introducing the strategies, the tools, and the changes in perception needed to work towards sobriety.

An important part of overcoming drug addiction is to seek therapy through support groups. Examples of support groups include Narcotics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous. During meetings, individuals will share experiences, thoughts, and struggles concerning the addiction. It is this ability to express in a non-judgemental setting and to relate to the stories of others that creates the most powerful premise for change.

Each meeting is led by a professional counsellor and individuals are introduced to sponsors. A sponsor is someone who has overcome an addiction and is available for support when challenging circumstances present, or the temptation to use is high.

Frequently Asked Questions
You may have a lot of questions about drug detoxification. If you are unable to find the answer below please give us a call and speak to one of our addiction specialists today.
Is a drug detox dangerous?
A drug detox can be dangerous. Detox and withdrawal from depressants such as alcohol and benzodiazepines present the most risk. It is important to seek the assistance and the advice of a medical professional before making the decision to undertake a detox.
Can I be prescribed drug detox medication?
While in a residential rehab or clinical inpatient programme, a medical physician may provide a prescription for benzodiazepines or opiate substitutes to help relieve withdrawal symptoms. An assessment of the history of addiction and the severity of a dependence will determine prescription medication support.
How long will I experience withdrawal symptoms?
The period for a drug withdrawal can range from 7 to 14 days. It largely depends on the type of drug used and the duration of the addiction. Long-acting opiates can create a withdrawal of up to 20 days. An individual assessment can determine the best options for treatment.
Can I get a drug detox on the NHS?
Not everyone can afford the costs of a private rehab. The NHS offers drug and alcohol services including low intensity therapy and holistic support. You will need to be medically assessed and referred by a medical practitioner or GP who can determine your suitability for addiction counselling, therapeutic treatment, and a safe detox .
How should I detox from multiple drugs?
The use of multiple drugs can complicate the process of a drug detox and the management of withdrawal symptoms. Multiple drug use can include prescription drugs and alcohol as an example. If you are considering a home detox, it is best to consult with a medical practitioner. This ensures the correct processes are implemented and specific detox and management practices in place.

Jason Sheirs
Author / Jason Shiers / Dip. Psych MBACP
Jason Shiers is a Certified Transformative Coach & Certified Psychotherapist who is a specialist in addiction, trauma and eating disorders. He has been working in the field of addiction for 25 years now.