A Step by Step Guide to Detox - Hader Clinic Queensland
Step by Step Guide to Detox

A Step-by-Step Guide to Detox

Drug and alcohol detoxification (detox) is the first step towards long-term recovery from addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. It is the term applied to the process of clearing all traces of drugs and/or alcohol from the system in order to leave a recovering addict stable enough to start the next phase of addiction treatment.

If you are planning on starting your recovery journey, it is important you seek professional help. Detoxing on your own can be dangerous and traumatic; however, medical detox – undertaken in a treatment centre, under 24/7 supervision and with assisting medication – will set you on the right path and ensure your recovery isn’t harder than it needs to be.

Step One – Identifying the Addiction

The process of detoxing is different for every person. Decisions on how to best manage the detox process are made based on the user’s substance of choice, the severity of the use and the period of substance abuse.

Step Two – Establishing a Treatment Plan

Every person experiences detox differently, which is why it is important to establish a treatment plan to best suit their individual needs. Any medications prescribed to ease the withdrawal process are dependent on the type of substance dependency and the results of the medical examination preceding detox.

There are four main distinctions when it comes to treatment plans:

  1. Opioid withdrawal – for persons addicted to heroin, morphine and some prescription medications, commonly painkillers
  2. Benzodiazepine withdrawal – for persons addicted to prescription medications such as Valium and Xanax
  3. Stimulant withdrawal – for persons addicted to stimulant drugs, such as cocaine, amphetamines and methamphetamines
  4. Depressant withdrawal – for persons addicted to depressant substances, such as alcohol

While there are some similarities in the detox process for every patient; however, the medical treatments to minimise distressing side effects of withdrawal are determined by the type of substance(s) a patient has become dependent on.

Step Three – Acute Withdrawal

Once a treatment plan is in place, detox begins. The first stage of detox, known as acute withdrawal, is commonly the most physically gruelling. As the last traces of drugs and/or alcohol leave a patient’s system, the body fights to maintain the effect of the substances, resulting in cravings. However, by this stage, the body and brain are usually so depleted of naturally occurring happy chemicals, such as endorphins, adrenaline and dopamine, that it is struggling to function normally. This causes what is known as withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal symptoms may include physical symptoms, i.e.:

  • Sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Shakes and shivers
  • Headaches
  • Muscle and bone aches
  • Stomach cramps
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Runny nose
  • Diarrhoea
  • Chills and/or hot flushes
  • Exhaustion
  • Insomnia

It may also include psychological symptoms, i.e.:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Paranoia
  • Confusion
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability and anger
  • Extreme cravings for drugs and/or alcohol

In extreme cases, persons going through acute withdrawal can experience seizures, hallucinations and psychotic episodes; all of which can spiral into potentially life-threatening situations if a person goes through withdrawal unsupervised. It is important to understand that attempting to detox on your own at home is not safe, smart or realistic.

Step Four – Chronic Withdrawal & Holistic Treatment

The acute stage of the detox process usually takes between 7 and 10 days and is followed by a phase termed ‘chronic withdrawal’. Recovering addicts are no longer in physical danger by the time they reach chronic withdrawal, and the worst of the physical withdrawal symptoms commonly dissipate at this stage. However, the psychological symptoms – particularly cravings, irritability, mood swings and anxiety – are likely to persist for weeks or even months.

If a recovering addict is well-supported and has a solid treatment plan, including residential treatment for 30-90 days, counselling, transitional housing and an aftercare plan, chronic withdrawal can be managed well.

Once the acute stage of detox is over, recovering addicts are usually stable enough to begin their long-term recovery process, which will ideally include intensive psychological counselling to maximise their chances of long-term recovery. Addiction goes far beyond the physical effects of drug and/or alcohol abuse; so there is plenty of work to be done once detox is over.

Photographs of clients have been changed to protect their privacy.

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