Weaning Off Drugs: Why Detox Is Safer

Weaning off drugs can present a number of challenges and risks. Attempting to taper one or more drugs on your own may be ineffective at best and dangerous at worst.

Medical detox can minimize the risks by keeping people as safe and comfortable as possible during the withdrawal process. Keep reading to learn more about drug tapering and how medical detox can help if you or a loved one has lost control of their substance use.

What Is a Drug Taper?

Drug tapering is the gradual reduction in drug dosage over a period of time so that a person can cut back or stop their substance use and potentially avoid or minimize withdrawal symptoms. A person’s previous drug use and health history can impact the speed of the taper and other factors, which is why it is crucial to discuss tapering with a doctor or another qualified medical professional.1,2

Is Tapering Safe?

Tapering on your own may be unsafe and, in some cases, can cause unpredictable and severe symptoms. For example, people tapering off benzodiazepines may experience:3

  • Low energy.
  • Anxiety.
  • Sleep and memory problems.
  • Headaches.
  • Suicidal thoughts.

Sometimes these symptoms can last long after drug use has stopped and may be serious enough to affect a person’s home life, career, and mental health.3

Safe drug tapering schedules should be determined and supervised by a medical professional. Doctors and other addiction experts typically advise that people undergo a thorough medical assessment to determine the most appropriate tapering schedule for their needs.2,3

Additionally, research has shown that tapering can be less effective than using a continued maintenance medication like Suboxone.4,5

According to one study of 113 people with prescription opioid dependence who were given either a buprenorphine taper or ongoing buprenorphine maintenance therapy, those who tapered were less successful in reducing opioid use compared to those who received maintenance therapy.4

People who tapered off had fewer maximum consecutive weeks of opioid abstinence compared with those in the maintenance group.4

Another study found that most prescription opioid users failed to achieve success when tapering off a buprenorphine-naloxone combination (e.g., Suboxone). Only 7% achieved abstinence or near-abstinence, while around half achieved successful outcomes while receiving buprenorphine-naloxone maintenance therapy.5

Medical Detox: A Safer Alternative

Medical detox is designed to help people dependent on one or more drugs to safely withdraw from those substances. A professional detox program can provide a comfortable, safe, and respectful environment to go through this often-uncomfortable process.1

Medical detox typically involves three main steps:1

  • Evaluation, which helps determine a patient’s specific needs, appropriate detox setting, and treatment plan. The process includes drug testing and screening for co-occurring mental health disorders or other physical health problems.
  • Stabilization is the actual withdrawal process involving medical supervision, medication (depending on the substance and a person’s individual needs), and other supportive resources.
  • Fostering patient readiness for and entry into more comprehensive addiction treatment once detox is complete.

Medical detox may take place in a variety of inpatient or outpatient settings depending on a person’s individual needs. Factors that help determine the appropriate detox setting include:1

  • Co-occurring mental health disorders or other medical conditions, such as underlying acute or chronic pain.
  • Adequate social supports, such as family or friends who can provide monitoring and transportation.
  • The substance(s) of use.

Generally, a professional detox program will not taper your drugs down (especially if they are illegal substances) but rather manage any acute withdrawal symptoms with other medications and professional support.1

It’s also important to understand that medical detox is an important first step in the recovery process, but detox by itself does not constitute comprehensive addiction treatment.1

People are usually encouraged to continue to some form of inpatient or outpatient rehab after they complete detox. The most suitable post-detox level of care and treatment type will vary according to the patient’s individual needs.1

Medical Detox Safety

As mentioned above, it’s not advisable to taper off substances on your own. While medical detox can take place in various settings, medically supervised inpatient detox offers a safe environment with 24-hour medical supervision where any concerns or complications that arise can be immediately addressed.1

This may be especially beneficial for many people, such as those who have a previous history of severe withdrawal or co-occurring medical conditions, or people who may be a danger to themselves and others.1

Others may find that an outpatient detox setting works well for them. A doctor may advise you of the appropriate detox setting for you.

Drug Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms can vary widely depending on the specific substance, but there are some general symptoms that may occur during substance withdrawal, including:1,6

  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Appetite changes.
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting.
  • Mood changes, such as anxiety, irritability, or depression.
  • Fatigue/tiredness.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include:7

  • Sweating, rapid pulse, and increased heart rate.
  • Hand tremors.
  • Insomnia.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Psychomotor agitation (restlessness and repetitive, purposeless movements).
  • Anxiety.
  • Seizures.

Withdrawal from alcohol, benzodiazepines, and other sedatives can be severe and may lead to potentially life-threatening complications, such as seizures.1

Although opioid withdrawal is not typically life-threatening, it can be very uncomfortable, painful, and unpleasant, and may increase the risk of relapse or continued opioid use.1

For these safety reasons, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration advises hospitalization or another form of 24-hour medical care during withdrawal from alcohol, benzodiazepines or other sedative-hypnotics, and opioids.1

Stimulants such as cocaine or amphetamine do not generally require inpatient detox; however, the severe depression associated with stimulant withdrawal can increase the risk of suicidal ideation or suicide.1,8

Some people may also have a risk of seizures from stimulant withdrawal. People at higher risk of these complications may benefit from inpatient detox and close medical supervision.1

Additionally, polysubstance use, or use of more than one substance at the same time, can complicate the withdrawal process, leading to unpredictable and potentially more severe symptoms.1,9

When someone has been using multiple substances, healthcare practitioners will generally prioritize treatment based on the withdrawal severity associated with each substance and manage them sequentially.1

Addiction Treatment Help in Orange County, California

If you or a loved one is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction and ready to begin the path to recovery, help is available.

At our Orange county rehab, we offer different levels of addiction rehab designed to meet the individual needs of each patient. For example, you might start with detox and then transition to inpatient or outpatient treatment, followed by aftercare to support lifelong recovery.

Start addiction treatment today by calling to speak with one of our caring admissions navigators about your rehab options. You can also get more information on using insurance to pay for rehab or other rehab payment options and  right away.

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