Drug and Alcohol Detoxification: The First Step To Sobriety

Written by Abby Doty

& Medically Reviewed by Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN

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Last Updated - 10/06/2023

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Updated 10/06/2023

Drug and alcohol detox is the first step for many people struggling with addiction. Because addiction to many drugs comes with a physical dependence, people often experience withdrawal symptoms when they attempt to stop using that substance. Detoxification under the care of medical professionals manages withdrawal symptoms swiftly and safely, minimizing the risk of relapse. Many then move forward to a personalized addiction treatment plan characterized by traditional, alternative and holistic therapy options.


What Is Detoxification?

Detoxification, or detox, is the process of the body naturally ridding a substance in the bloodstream and physically adjusting to its absence. Detox is the first and hardest step in overcoming addiction due to the withdrawal symptoms during this process.

What Drugs Require Detox?

Quitting all drugs that create dependence will lead to detox, but specific mechanisms of each drug will change the withdrawal symptoms someone experiences during detox. These withdrawal symptoms may be psychological or physical in nature — and in most cases, people will experience some degree of both. Detox is always the starting point in recovery, no matter what substance is being used.

Can I Detox at Home?

Some people would prefer to detox at home. Withdrawal symptoms are uncomfortable, and it may be preferable to have the comfort of familiarity as they attempt to navigate this process. Many people have informally attempted detox at home multiple times before considering professional treatment.

Depending on the substance, opting for a self-detox at home is often ineffective and can be dangerous or even deadly. People who have an addiction should generally not detox at home and should always check with a doctor before attempting to detox by themselves.

Risks of Detox at Home

Some of the higher risks of choosing to detox at home as opposed to detoxing at a professional drug and alcohol rehabilitation center include:

  • Mental health symptoms and complications: Chronic drug abuse and addiction can cause mental health symptoms and exacerbate the symptoms of an underlying mental health disorder. When a person suddenly stops taking a drug that their brain is accustomed to receiving regularly, it can lead to extreme mental health symptoms — even psychosis, hallucinations, seizures and more. This can be a devastating experience in any forum. In the care of medical professionals, however, the individual will have the treatment necessary to stabilize safely.
  • Relapse: When someone is at home, there is nothing standing between them and relapse except perhaps a concerned family member or two. It can be very tempting to relapse in order to stop the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that characterize the detoxification experience. When at home, the person undergoing detox may be more likely to do just that. When in the care of professionals, however, it is well known that this may be a problem. Staff members take extra care to help support individuals through the detox process so they can avoid relapse until they are strong enough to do so on their own.
  • Medical issues: Underlying medical issues can be just as problematic during detox as underlying mental health symptoms. In fact, many people may not realize that they are living with an underlying medical concern until they detox and begin to experience complications or undergo a medical evaluation at the onset of treatment. Medical care can help identify any issue that may be problematic during detox. It can also provide support and treatment as needed to mitigate any issues before they become harmful.
  • Overdose: Relapse at home can be deadly due to the increased risk of overdose after even a brief period of abstinence. Often, people who have begun to detox have partially or fully adjusted their sensitivity to the substance, making it dangerous to use the same amount they were before. For this reason, it is highly recommended that people undergo detox followed by intensive psychotherapeutic treatment until they are stable in recovery with the coping skills they need to avoid relapse over the long term.

Drug and Alcohol Detox Is a Process

Detoxing from a substance is a crucial part of the recovery journey. It can be a difficult process to go through; however, the brief discomfort of detox is well worth the lifetime of health and freedom that awaits on the other side. It is important to keep in mind that detox is not quick or easy but that the process is ultimately worth it. Having the support of medical professionals can greatly help as you go through this process.

Drug and Alcohol Detox Side Effects

The side effects people experience during detox can vary greatly depending upon the substance. Common side effects of detox include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Headaches
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle pain
  • Tremors

People will need to speak with their doctor to get specific information about what side effects they personally are likely to experience based on their health and the substance they have been using.

It is important to remember that the side effects of withdrawal are temporary and will pass as you progress through your detox. These side effects may be more severe if the substance being detoxed from was used for a long period of time or in large quantities. Professional treatment is necessary to avoid health problems or discomfort caused by serious detox side effects.

Drug and Alcohol Detox Treatment

A bare-bones, short-term detox may provide only the basics — emergency medical care and a place to stay during the most significant withdrawal symptoms. A high-quality drug detox program will offer a range of services and amenities to meet the needs of each person. Depending upon whether or not the person struggles with co-occurring mental health disorders, underlying medical issues and past attempts at detox, services may include:

  • Medical care: Not everyone will require medical stabilization at the onset of detox, medication during detox or medical care of any kind. But all people should undergo an initial medical assessment and receive any medical care and monitoring necessary to ensure their safety and health throughout the detox process and beyond.
  • Therapeutic support: The psychological withdrawal symptoms associated with detox can be significant, and all people will benefit from access to a range of therapeutic options based on their needs. Traditional therapy options like personal therapy and group therapy are available to all. Each person may also take part in alternative and holistic treatment options as well during the detox period.
  • Regular assessments: Throughout the detox process, which can last up to a few weeks, people will have regular check-ins with their therapeutic team and undergo ongoing medical monitoring as needed. This is to ensure their needs are met and detox and treatment goals are adjusted when necessary.
  • Aftercare support, treatment or referrals: Detox is an important part of addiction treatment, but it is not a cure or enough on its own to help someone stabilize in recovery. A good detox program will also provide resources and guidance for maintaining what someone has achieved during detox.

Benefits of Drug and Alcohol Detox Programs

In addition to helping people avoid the risks of at-home detox, there are a number of benefits for those who begin their treatment journey with professional care. Some of these benefits include:

  • 24-hour support: At no point during the detox experience will a person feel alone or without the support of medical and/or therapeutic professionals. An acute professional detox program will offer around-the-clock care that includes psychiatric treatment and peer support as well.
  • Personalized care and amenities: Details like managing basic hygiene, eating healthy and attending to one’s mental wellness can fall through the cracks without support during the detox period. Substance abuse treatment professionals ensure that people enrolled in detox stay active in a structured schedule that helps them meet their needs on all levels.
  • Preparation for therapeutic growth: Though the first weeks in detox may be too physically and/or emotionally draining to truly dive into therapeutic treatment, the first steps can be taken as soon as someone is ready.
  • Space to heal: When enrolled in a professional detox program, people have the opportunity to step back from the pressures of life and focus on themselves — no worrying about bills, no knocks on the door, no intrusive phone calls and no distractions. The sole focus of every day is on health, wellness, growth and connecting with the services that will allow the individual to grow in recovery and leave drug and alcohol abuse in the past.

Drug and Alcohol Detox Program Timeline

Though each person’s experience will be unique during detox and addiction treatment, there is a general process that most people will undertake if they choose an acute professional detox program. These include:

  • Intake: When someone first enters detox, they will undergo the intake process. For an acute treatment program, this will usually include an initial medical assessment; a brief tour; introduction to staff members, roommates, and/or other residents; and the completion of any paperwork that has not yet been taken care of prior to enrollment.
  • Stabilization: In some cases, an individual enters detox in the midst of a medical and/or mental health crisis. In this situation, stabilization may be necessary immediately in order to ensure the person’s safety.
  • Thorough Medical Evaluation: Medical and psychiatric care will begin with an evaluation and physical exam. This process is to determine whether or not there are acute medical issues that require treatment, a medication schedule that must be maintained or the possibility that a chronic medical disorder may be an issue as well.
  • Acute medical care: Based on the results of the evaluation, the individual will then be given the medical care needed to treat the acute care issues as they enter detox and begin to experience withdrawal symptoms.
  • Detox plan: Depending upon the individual’s substance of choice, the use of multiple substances, their past experience with attempted detox and other issues, a detox plan will be created and implemented. This could include medication to address specific withdrawal symptoms or long-term maintenance medication to manage detox over a longer period of time. It may call for specific therapeutic interventions per the individual’s treatment goals or co-occurring mental health issues. It may also detail a nutrition and exercise plan as well as include a range of holistic treatment options to help simplify the detox process and limit the discomfort associated with physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms.
  • Therapeutic treatment plan: In addition to the physical issues associated with detox, the psychological struggle that occurs due to cravings will also be addressed. Personal therapy, group therapy sessions and other forms of alternative therapies may begin during detox in order to help the individual to more quickly progress in recovery.

Hope for Drug and Alcohol Detox

Drug and alcohol addiction is taxing both physically and psychologically. Detox is the first step in a much-needed recovery process that will empower people to leave drug and alcohol abuse in the past and begin to build a new life defined by balance and strength.

Learn more about the options available to you and your loved ones in drug rehabilitation when you contact The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake. We are here to help you and your family take the first steps toward a new life.

View Sources

Hayashida, Motoi. “An Overview of Outpatient and Inpatient Detoxification.” Alcohol Health & Research World. 1998. Accessed June 22, 2023.

Dugdale, David C. “Alcohol withdrawal.” MedlinePlus. January 17, 2021. Accessed June 22, 2023.

Berger, Fred K. “Opiate and opioid withdrawal.” MedlinePlus. April 30, 2022. Accessed June 22, 2023.

Gupta, Mohit; Gokarakonda, Srinivasa B.; & Attia, Fibi N. “Withdrawal Syndromes.” StatPearls. April 29, 2023. Accessed June 22, 2023.


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