Medications Used for Drug & Alcohol Detox & Treatment
People often worry about detox being difficult or painful, which may deter someone from getting treatment. However, medically supervised detox is a process where monitoring and medications can help you get through your withdrawal as safely and comfortably as possible.
Continue reading to learn more about the detox process, drug withdrawal symptoms that may occur, different medications used during detox, and how to find a detox center near you.
What Is a Medical Detox?
Medical detox is a set of evidence-based interventions designed to manage withdrawal and reduce the likelihood of potentially severe complications as a person adapts to a drug or alcohol-free state.1 These interventions can include supportive care from medical professionals as well as medications to alleviate symptoms and minimize withdrawal risks.1
While detox is an important and often necessary component of a person’s recovery journey, it is not a substitute for comprehensive treatment.1, 2 Detox is intended to address the acute symptoms of withdrawal which, for certain types of substance dependence, can be life-threatening, if left unmanaged.1 Additional treatment, such as inpatient rehab or other levels of care, may be warranted to address the underlying issues that led to substance use and set a firm foundation for recovery.2
Drug Withdrawal Symptoms
When someone has becomes physiologically dependent on a substance, they may experience withdrawal symptoms when their use abruptly slows or stops.2 Depending on the substance (e.g., opioids, alcohol), how long it was used, and how much was used, symptoms may take several days or longer to peak before then gradually subsiding.1 Unmanaged withdrawal can be intensely uncomfortable and, for some types of substance withdrawal syndromes such as those associated with alcohol and other CNS depressants, life-threatening.1,2
Medications for Opioid Withdrawal & Detox
Opioid withdrawal is not usually life-threatening, but the unmanaged symptoms and cravings can be severe enough that someone may return to use.1,3,5 Opioid withdrawal can result in some intense and challenging symptoms, including:1
- Body aches.
- Gastrointestinal distress.
Medications can help with some of the cravings and intense symptoms that make opioid withdrawal difficult.1 Some medications that are initiated during the detox stage may also be continued as maintenance medications as part of ongoing treatment of opioid use disorder (OUD).1
Methadone is a long-acting opioid agonist used for both opioid detox and maintenance treatment of opioid use disorder.6 It is safe, effective, and proven to increase treatment participation and improve recovery outcomes.6
Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist that can be used for detox and maintenance treatment of opioid use disorder (OUD).3 It reduces withdrawal symptoms and cravings with a similar level of effectiveness as methadone.5 Buprenorphine should not cause a pronounced or rewarding euphoria when taken as prescribed for OUD treatment.5
Clonidine, an alpha-2-adrenergic agent historically used as a blood pressure medication, is sometimes used off-label to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms like anxiety and irritability.1, 3 Lofexidine, another non-opioid drug in the same class as clonidine, was recently FDA-approved for use in detox to help manage opioid withdrawal symptoms.5
Clonidine may also be given to people withdrawing from alcohol or benzodiazepines.1
Medications for Alcohol & Sedative Withdrawal and Detox
Symptoms of alcohol or sedative withdrawal can vary in severity and can include:1
- Poor concentration.
- Lack of appetite.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Elevated heart rate and blood pressure.
- Increased sensitivity to light and sound.
In medical detox for alcohol and/or sedative withdrawal management, various medications may be administered to decrease the risk of life-threatening complications and keep people as safe and comfortable as possible.1
Benzodiazepines are the first-line treatment for alcohol and sedative withdrawal. They effectively prevent seizures and delirium and reduce the severity of other withdrawal symptoms.1, 7 Long-acting benzodiazepines can also be used to manage withdrawal from shorter-acting benzodiazepines.1
Phenobarbital is a barbiturate anticonvulsant sometimes used for sedative and alcohol withdrawal.1 However, it has a lower margin of safety than benzodiazepines, which have as a result become more prevalently used for withdrawal management purposes.1
Anticonvulsant medications, such as gabapentin, are used to prevent or treat seizures.8 They may sometimes be used to augment efforts to manage alcohol or sedative withdrawal because of the associated risk of seizures.7
Medications for Other Types of Withdrawal
Currently, only a few FDA-approved medications are specifically indicated to manage opioid and alcohol withdrawal.2 However, other medications, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, may be used as adjuncts to relieve specific symptoms such as fever or headache.1
Post-Detox Treatment Medications
Managing the symptoms of withdrawal is just one part of the detox process. Many individuals will start participating in therapy or group sessions that support their recovery efforts.1 Some people may be prescribed post-treatment medications to help them maintain recovery and manage any protracted withdrawal symptoms or re-occurring cravings.2
Suboxone is a combination of buprenorphine, an opioid partial agonist, and naloxone, an opioid antagonist.9 When Suboxone is taken as prescribed, the naloxone component of the combination medication remains largely inactive.3 However, if Suboxone is injected or otherwise misused, the naloxone becomes active, which could result in immediate opioid withdrawal.3,9 This can be a deterrent to misuse of the medication.3
Suboxone treatment may be initiated after an individual has gone through a period of abstinence; it is used as a maintenance treatment for opioid use disorder.9
Naltrexone is an opioid antagonist used as a maintenance medication to reduce the risk of relapse.5 A long-acting form of naltrexone called Vivitrol was initially FDA-approved for alcohol use disorder, but it has been used for opioid use disorder since 2010.5 Naltrexone blocks some of the rewarding effects of alcohol and opioids, which discourages use and aids in abstinence.10
Disulfiram (Antabuse) is a medication that interferes with the way alcohol is metabolized in the body, resulting in the buildup of an metabolite known as acetaldehyde—a substance that can lead to certain unpleasant effects.11 When taken daily, disulfiram may reduce relapse risk due to the development of unpleasant symptoms such as nausea, flushing, and heart palpitations when someone drinks alcohol.11
Acamprosate is another FDA-approved medication for alcohol addiction. It can be started after five days of abstinence and can help prevent relapse.11 Acamprosate is thought to restore neurochemical imbalances caused by chronic alcohol use and manage protracted abstinence symptoms, which can help reduce drinking behavior.11
How Effective Are Detox Medications?
Detox medications are an effective treatment option that can help people manage withdrawal symptoms, reduce cravings, and stay in recovery.1,3,11 However, they are just one facet of the spectrum of addiction treatment.2 They are often used with evidence-based tools, such as behavioral therapy, to address the underlying issues contributing to addiction, identify triggers, and learn coping skills.2
Detox From Drug & Alcohol at Greenhouse Treatment Center
If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, there is effective help to get you on the road to recovery and back to living the life you deserve. At our inpatient rehab near Dallas our compassionate team of specialists use addiction-focused healthcare to help people achieve meaningful recovery.
Contact our admissions navigators at to learn more about our different levels of care. They can also answer your questions about ways to pay for rehab, using your insurance for addiction treatment, and help you start the admissions process.
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