Stopping drug use is always the right choice, but how you quit could carry some risks. In some cases, sudden or “cold turkey” abstinence is not advisable. To be safe, meet with a doctor or addiction treatment professional so that you understand the potential risks of quitting certain substances, including alcohol.
People who decide to end their drug use may experience withdrawal symptoms if their bodies have adapted to the drug’s presence (known as dependence). Many drugs are associated with distinct withdrawal syndromes—some may be managed with emotional support but others could require emergency medical intervention depending on symptom severity; just how severe withdrawal will be will be dependent on many factors including the drug type and the individual’s health.
The term "detox" is often used casually to refer to clean eating, drinking water, fasting, and generally flushing “toxins” out of the system. For a very casual substance user who wants to feel healthy, a period of drinking a lot of water, eating well, and not using drugs may be enough for them to feel like they’ve detoxed their bodies. However, in the case of physical dependence on a substance, “detox” refers to the set of interventions used to manage the body’s readjustment to not having the drug; this readjustment is knowns as withdrawal, and it can be an extremely dangerous time, depending on the drug on which the person is dependent.
Dependence may develop quickly, depending on the patterns of use and the drug. Some people who’ve been using only for a matter of weeks may experience withdrawal upon quitting. Certain prescription drugs may also lead to significant dependence, and individuals abusing prescription drugs may be just as at-risk of withdrawal complications as a person using illicit substances.
If you’ve been using one or more drugs consistently and want to quit, it’s a good idea to meet with a medical professional to gauge your risk of withdrawal and best determine the appropriate method for you to end your substance use. You may be advised to undergo medical detox if you are at risk of severe withdrawal, for example if you’re dependent on alcohol or benzodiazepines.
Depending on the substance, severe symptoms could include:
- Severe confusion and disorientation.
- Depression and anger resulting in self-harm or aggression toward others.
When you meet with a medical or addiction professional to discuss the safest way to quit using one or more substances, they will gather information regarding:
- Substances used.
- The intensity, frequency, and duration of use.
- Previous attempts at detox.
- Preexisting mental health conditions.
- Preexisting physical health conditions.
When appropriate, non-medical or socially managed detoxes are residential treatment options that provide supportive care and compassion from the staff to help people through withdrawal and encourage recovery. Though helpful for many, these detoxes may not provide sufficient support for someone dependent on opioids, alcohol, or sedatives.
Some people with relatively few acute health risks may be able to detox on an outpatient basis. Outpatient detoxes may offer similar medications and treatment plans to manage withdrawal while permitting the individual to live at home. For outpatient detox, the person will be required to keep regularly scheduled appointments with their doctors for evaluation and treatment.
Depending on the course of treatment, detox can take just a few days, several weeks or more. The decisions made during detox are aimed at making the withdrawal process as safe and comfortable as possible.