Medical detoxification, or detox, is the process of removing all traces of a drug and its toxins from your body. It takes place under the supervision of licensed medical professionals who ensure the process is safe and as comfortable as possible. It is often the first stage in an addiction treatment program.

Addiction is a chronic disease characterized by long-term changes in the brain, and treatment requires overcoming the underlying causes of addictive behavior. As such, medical detox alone does little to change long-term drug abuse; however, it can set the stage for effective and life-changing addiction treatment to follow.

Do I Need a Medical Detox?

You usually need a medical detox at the beginning of your treatment plan when you may have become physically dependent on a substance. Physical dependence is when your body adjusts to the presence of drugs or alcohol in your body and needs it to function normally. Suddenly quitting the drug can lead to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, which, if unsupervised, can be dangerous or even life-threatening.

There are several signs, symptoms, and risk factors of physical dependence. These include:

  • Using a substance regularly in large doses
  • Using a substance over a long period of time
  • Noticing a diminished effect from a substance despite using the same quantities
  • Needing increases amounts of a substance to experience the high
  • Craving a substance when you cannot access it
  • Being unable to stop using a substance without support

If you recognize any of these factors, you may have developed physical dependence and need medical detox. You can contact a licensed professional or rehabilitation center for further advice.

What Drugs Require a Medical Detox?

Physical dependence on any addictive substance may require a medical detox to help manage withdrawal symptoms; however, the nature of these symptoms and the experience of the substance user varies. In some cases and depending on the substance concerned, these symptoms can be life-threatening if they are unmanaged, and medical assistance is especially important.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends inpatient medical detox for withdrawal from alcohol, sedative-hypnotics such as benzodiazepines, and opioids.

Alcohol Detox

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant that lowers your body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. Withdrawal from alcohol reverses these effects and can cause them to reach dangerously high levels. In severe cases, it can result in seizures, hallucinations, and delirium tremens, which can be fatal without medical support.

Alcohol detox programs usually take place in a quiet intensive care unit. Doctors often prescribe benzodiazepines to help treat delirium tremens and other severe symptoms to ensure the patient is safe.

Opioid Detox

Opioids are drugs derived from the seeds of the opium poppy or synthetically made substances that mimic its effects. They include heroin, morphine, and many prescription painkillers, including Oxycodone and Fentanyl.

Opioids work by reproducing the effects of naturally occurring opioids in our brains. When you take opioids regularly, your body begins to depend on external opioids and stops producing its own. Prescription opioid abuse is a public health crisis in the United States, and thousands of people across the country are currently dependent on opioid drugs.

When you withdraw from opioids, it takes time for the body to return its opioid production to normal levels. While opioid withdrawal alone is not fatal, symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable, including nausea, anxiety, and muscle aches. Medical detox can help make the process as easy as possible, assist with managing cravings and help avoid a return to substance use.


Benzodiazepines are CNS depressants like alcohol, and withdrawal can be similarly dangerous. Withdrawal symptoms include hallucinations, anxiety, and seizures and are especially severe if you stop using them suddenly. Most medical detox plans usually involve tapering off use gradually to minimize the possibility of severe symptoms.

Other Substances

You may benefit from medical detox if you are withdrawing from other substances too. It may be especially beneficial if you:

  • Have a co-occurring mental health disorder like anxiety or depression
  • Have a comorbid medical condition
  • Have had experiences of severe withdrawal symptoms in the past, especially if symptoms have got worse each time
  • Have been using more than one substance

If you’ve already attempted to detox on your own, there is a good chance you’re scared to try again. Unmedicated withdrawal symptoms are uncomfortable at best and can be extremely dangerous at worst.

Most people are surprised at how much smoother a supervised detox makes things. Professional clinics can prescribe medication to reduce the most severe symptoms and minimize the shock to your body, making your transition into your new life as easy as possible.