Drug and alcohol detox

This Page was last reviewed and changed on February 28th, 2022

Content Overview

Detox is a crucial first step in your addiction treatment because it clears your system so that you can start again substance-free. We understand that this can be a difficult process both physically and emotionally, but it is a necessary first step towards making a successful addiction recovery. To ensure your personal safety, we advise that you complete the detox process under the supervision a medical professional because there can potentially be severe withdrawal symptoms and other complications.

On this page, we will explain everything you need to know about alcohol and drug detox, how to do it safely, and what to expect from drug and alcohol withdrawal.

How to get drugs and alcohol out of your system

Drug and alcohol detoxification is the process of removing the addictive substance from your system, permitting your body to recover from the physical and mental damage caused by the substance. While this may seem straightforward, we understand that drug or alcohol dependence can find it very difficult to stop consuming the addictive substance.

Everybody reacts differently to detox, but most people experience some degree of withdrawal. The withdrawal symptoms may be severe or mild. In our experience, the safest way for clients to undergo treatment is at an inpatient rehab and detox centre under the supervision of a medical professional. At one of our eight UKAT clinics, you will receive a full medical assessment by one of our highly trained and empathetic staff, who will always provide invaluable advice and guidance during each stage of your treatment.

It is important to remember that detoxing without medical supervision can be very dangerous. If you absolutely cannot go to a rehab or detox centre, we urge you to consult your doctor so that they can best advise you how to detox safely. If they are willing, having a family member, friend, or medial professional with you whilst you are going through detox can help to maintain your safety and comfort.

To access safe detox, please contact a medical professional such as your local GP or one of our trained specialists as soon as possible to discuss which type of treatment will best suit your needs.

Alcohol withdrawal

Most people who undergo alcohol detoxification will experience some degree of discomfort as their body readjusts to operating without alcohol. This is because using alcohol for a prolonged period of time causes chemical changes within the central nervous system which adapts to the effects of alcohol, resulting in tolerance; however, these adaptive effects seem to be transient, disappearing after alcohol intake is stopped or reduced considerably, resulting in alcohol withdrawal symptoms. This results in brain hyperexcitability which manifests clinically as anxiety, irritability, agitation, and tremors. Severe manifestations include alcohol withdrawal seizures and delirium. Delirium tremens (DT) is a life-threatening manifestation of alcohol withdrawal that occurs in about five percent of patients.

When you drink alcohol, your seizure threshold is raised, and it declines on cessation of drinking. As a result, seizures may occur six to eight hours after giving up alcohol. If you are taking any other drugs (prescribed or otherwise), it also increase the severity and duration of withdrawal symptoms and the associated risks. History of, or the likelihood of developing, poor physical or mental health, seizures or DTs rules out home detoxification.

A thorough assessment is essential before a patient is considered for alcohol detoxification. There are a number of psycho-social and medical factors which make a home detox unsafe and undesirable for the safety of patients and their carers. Similarly, a home environment in which the patient is likely to create problems for others or unlikely to receive any social support means that, in general, home detoxification will be unsuitable.

Sometimes, it may be important to relieve the family of the problem drinker for a short period. It is certainly advisable to admit a patient with a history of violence, domestic or otherwise, to an in-patient setting, as this can be exacerbated during alcohol withdrawal.

Brain recovery

Unfortunately, alcohol abuse can cause notable brain damage, and it can take some time to repair this damage. However, after about two weeks of alcohol detox, your brain will have replaced a large amount of the volume that was lost. You will experience a vast improvement in your cognitive function, balance and motor skills. Sustaining sobriety will rebuild your mental health, self-confidence and cognitive sharpness.

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is the name given to more serious withdrawal symptoms that can occur when someone with a severe alcohol dependency gives up drinking. The severity of your AWS will depend on the extent of your dependency and the treatment you receive. During medically assisted detox at a UKAT detox clinic, our healthcare professionals will keep a careful eye on all the symptoms of AWS to ensure that your heart rate, temperature, and blood pressure are steady. If your vital signs begin to fluctuate to a dangerous degree, medication or other treatment may be required to ease withdrawal symptoms and keep you safe.

Delirium tremens

Delirium tremens is the name given to the most severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as dangerously high blood pressure and seizures. This condition occurs when the brain and central nervous system become overwhelmed by the surplus of stimulants in the brain. If you develop delirium tremens, these symptoms can continue for up to a week and can cause serious health issues such as stroke, heart attack, and in the worst case can be fatal.

Delirium tremens often begins with mild symptoms such as increased agitation and confusion, and physical signs like excess sweating or fever. As these are common withdrawal symptoms of alcohol withdrawal during detox, medical staff will be on the lookout for more severe reactions which can indicate the onset of delirium tremens:

  • Audio, visual and tactile hallucinations
  • Vivid nightmares of fever dreams
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Severe tremors
  • Drug withdrawal

    Realistically, any addictive drug can lead to withdrawal symptoms upon cessation of use. If someone has become psychologically dependent on a substance, they will almost certainly experience some kind of withdrawal once they stop taking it. Withdrawal symptoms are not exclusive to illegal drug addiction – prescription medication, although used therapeutically, can also be addictive.

    The withdrawal symptoms of drug detox can differ from person to person, but the most common symptoms include:

  • Insomnia
  • Paranoia
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Aggression
  • Nightmares
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Restlessness, agitation and irritability
  • Muscle cramps and spasms
  • Diarrhoea and other digestive problems
  • Flulike symptoms including fever, sore throat, and runny nose
  • Sweating and shivering
  • The early stages of psychosis
  • How long for drugs and alcohol to leave the system?

    The length of the detox process can vary from person to person, as it is dependent on factors such as your health, the quantity of alcohol or drugs in your system, and whether you have any underlying medical conditions. Typically, drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms worsen during the first two days of detox and are the most uncomfortable on the third or fourth day of detox. Providing that you do not develop any serious health complications, these unpleasant symptoms should start to subside seven to ten days into detox.

    How long does alcohol withdrawal last?

    It is likely that you will experience the peak of alcohol withdrawal during the first two to three days of your alcohol detox treatment due the body’s chemical imbalance. You may experience the same kind of discomfort that comes with a hangover. Common symptoms include:

    • Dehydration
    • Headaches
    • Nausea
    • Restlessness

    For most people, the third day of their alcohol detox treatment marks an improvement in hydration and mood as blood sugar levels return to normal. Usually, the hangover-like symptoms start to wane, leaving you feeling more energised. Your alcohol cravings should also begin to subside because there will no longer be a chemical imbalance.

    Our bodies possess incredible powers of recovery, and after a month of abstinence you should see some seriously positive changes. The organ most affected by alcohol abuse is the liver, as long-term alcohol abuse can cause a chronic health condition such as cirrhosis. However, your body will lose around 20% of the fatty deposits caused by drinking after only one month of sobriety. You should see significant improvements in your energy levels, mental clarity, skin, sleeping pattern.

    How long does drug withdrawal last?

    On average, physical drug withdrawal symptoms last between one to two weeks. However, completing detox may take significantly longer in severe cases of addiction. During the detox process, most symptoms usually begin to decline by the second week.

    It is important to consider the consequences of long-term alcohol and drug, which can cause permanent damage to your health. If your substance abuse continues, it is likely that you will experience symptoms resembling withdrawal, but they will not fade over time. This is why detoxification is paramount to making a full addiction recovery.

    Our eight UKAT inpatient rehab clinics provide you with a safe and comfortable space in which you can complete your detox. At an inpatient rehab clinic, you can detox with the guidance and support of professionals who are medically trained in the field of addiction. This reassurance can help to remove some of the stress or anxiety that you may be feeling as you prepare to undergo rehabilitation for your addiction.

    Three people in intense conversation

    Which medicines are prescribed for drug and alcohol detoxification?

    The first medication you are likely to receive at a professional alcohol and drug detox clinic will help to manage your ongoing cravings. For example, if you are undergoing treatment for heroin or alcohol addiction, you may be given medicines that work by blocking opioid receptors. Other drugs may also be prescribed to help with the physical symptoms of drug or alcohol withdrawal. These include:

    Sedative medications (benzodiazepines)

  • Reduces the risk of seizures
  • Treats anxiety and insomnia

    Neuroleptic medications (antipsychotics)

  • Stablises the central nervous system
  • Prevents muscle spasms
  • Post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS)

    Post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) refers to the longer-term withdrawal symptoms that some people develop during alcohol and drug treatment. PAWS may manifest as:

    • Irritability and mood swings
    • Loss of libido
    • Fatigue
    • Chronic pain or discomfort

    The most effective way to deal with PAWS is by completing addiction treatment at a professional rehab and detox centre where you will receive the assistance you need to overcome your withdrawal.

    Addiction treatment options

    We urge you to remember detox alone is not a cure for addiction. At rehab, detox is only the first phase of a holistic treatment programme to help a person overcome their addiction and substance abuse issues. The next phase is a combination of therapies exploring the causes of addiction and providing coping mechanisms for relapse prevention. Targeting the emotional and historical roots of your addiction is a vital part of understanding yourself, and this is why a holistic approach to treatment is the most important aspect of a successful addiction recovery.

    At UKAT, our available programmes are seven, days, fourteen or twenty-eight day stays in the rehab clinic, as well as aftercare and lifelong support. The length of your stay in an inpatient rehabilitation centre depends on your individual circumstances. Our team encourage you to consider how long you will need to recover from your initial drug or alcohol withdrawal symptoms during detox, as this is always the first step of any drug or alcohol addiction treatment programme.

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    Recovery is an ongoing process, which is why at UKAT we enrol our clients into our aftercare programme to give you the ongoing support that you need to maintain sobriety and continue incorporating your recovery techniques into your daily routine.

    We understand that drug and alcohol detox can be daunting if you are dependent on substances. However, this does not have to be the case for the rest of your life. With the right care, assistance, and a holistic programme treating all physical and psychological aspects of your addiction, you can receive the help that you need to make a long-lasting recovery from your addiction.

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    If you successfully complete our 90-day inpatient treatment programme but experience a relapse within 30 days of leaving, we will welcome you back for complimentary 30 days of treatment.*

    * Click here to learn more or contact UKAT directly for rehab availability.

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