Common Medications Used for Drugs & Alcohol Detox
Stopping drug or alcohol use can be an extremely unpleasant experience, which in and of itself can present early challenges to those starting down the road to recovery. In many such instances, a supervised medical detox can ease the transition into treatment by managing withdrawal as safely and comfortably as possible.
In this article, you will learn more about medical detox, medications used in drug and alcohol detox, post-detox treatment medications, and detox in Tampa.
What Is Medical Detox?
Medical detox is a set of interventions, including medications and medical supervision, designed to manage withdrawal and minimize the risk of potentially serious withdrawal complications as the body adjusts to an alcohol or drug-free state.1
When a person is dependent on a substance, their body becomes accustomed to having it and will go through withdrawal symptoms when they abruptly slow or stop using it.2 Medical detox and pharmaceutical withdrawal management can be especially important for people are dependent on opioids, alcohol, or benzodiazepines as these withdrawal syndromes may include incredibly uncomfortable symptoms and, in some cases, complications.1
Medications Used in Drug and Alcohol Detox
Medications used in drug and alcohol detox are prescribed to help ease physical discomfort, reduce psychological distress, and prevent serious medical complications.1 The decision to use medications during detox is made on a case-by-case basis, in consideration of several factors, such as:1
- The substances from which the person is detoxing.
- The risk of severe withdrawal.
- The person’s overall health, including concurrent medical issues.
The specific medications given during detox typically depends on the substance of dependence. Certain medications are used to manage opioid withdrawal, while others will be used for alcohol or sedative withdrawal. Still others (e.g., non-prescription analgesics) may be used to ease symptoms such as body aches and fever.1
Medications for Opioid Withdrawal
When someone is withdrawing from opioids, they may experience a number of physical and psychological symptoms that are incredibly intense and often difficult to endure.1 Opioid withdrawal symptoms may include:1
- Body aches.
- Gastrointestinal distress.
While opioid withdrawal is not typically life-threatening, the symptoms experienced during an unmanaged withdrawal can be severe enough, and the cravings strong enough, that an individual may to find relief.1
Medications may help ease the cravings and flu-like symptoms that make opioid withdrawal so distressing.6 Additionally, certain medications can be used as part of ongoing opioid use disorder (OUD) treatment.1
Methadone is a long-acting opioid agonist that can be used both in an opioid detox to manage withdrawal symptoms and as a maintenance medication in the treatment of opioid use disorder.3
Methadone is safe and effective and has been shown to increase participation rates in treatment therapies and improve recovery outcomes.6
Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist that is used as a detox medication and, like methadone, can be used indefinitely as an opioid maintenance medication.4 Buprenorphine reduces symptoms experienced during opioid withdrawal and reduces cravings.5 Buprenorphine is as effective as methadone, and should not elicit a pronounced, rewarding euphoria when taken as prescribed for OUD treatment.5
Suboxone is a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone, an opioid receptor antagonist.5 When used as prescribed as an oral medication, the naloxone has no effect. If a person attempts to intentionally misuse Suboxone by injecting it, the naloxone component will become active and will immediately send the person into opioid withdrawal.7 This is meant as a deterrent to misuse of the medication. Like standalone buprenorphine, Suboxone may be used in detox and afterwards as a maintenance medication.7
Clonidine is a blood pressure medication that is sometimes used off-label to manage symptoms of withdrawal from opioids, such as anxiety and irritability.1,4
In some cases, clonidine may also be given to patients in alcohol or benzodiazepine withdrawal.1
Medication for Sedative and Alcohol Withdrawal
Withdrawal from alcohol or sedatives, such as benzodiazepine medications, can result in life-threatening complications in some cases.1 Individuals going through alcohol or benzodiazepine withdrawal, for instance, may experience potentially fatal seizures or delirium.1
Other symptoms of alcohol or sedative withdrawal may include:1
- Poor concentration.
- Loss of appetite.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Elevated heart rate and blood pressure.
- Increased sensitivity to light and sound.
Medications provided in a supervised medical detox setting can prevent serious complications and keep patients safe during acute withdrawal.1
Benzodiazepines are considered the first line of defense for managing alcohol withdrawal.1,8 The efficacy of benzodiazepines in managing alcohol withdrawal is well documented. They can prevent seizures and delirium and effectively reduce the severity of other alcohol-related withdrawal symptoms.8
Benzodiazepines can also be used successfully to manage sedative withdrawal.1 In fact, long-acting benzodiazepines may be used to manage withdrawal from shorter-acting benzodiazepines.1
Anticonvulsant medications, such as carbamazepine and gabapentin, are those that are used to prevent or manage seizures.9 They may be prescribed for patients in alcohol or sedative withdrawal because of the likelihood of seizures.8,9
Medications for Other Types of Withdrawal
At this time, there are only a handful of medications specifically FDA-approved to manage opioid and alcohol withdrawal.2 However, certain other medications, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, may be given as adjunctive medications to help alleviate specific symptoms such as fever or headache.1
Post-Detox Treatment Medications
Managing acute withdrawal from substances is just one facet of detox. During detox, many people will begin therapy or engage with other evidence-based treatments as their first steps on the road to recovery.1 However, it can be difficult to engage in treatment while coping with cravings or other residual withdrawal symptoms.2
Medications for alcohol and opioid use disorders can help individuals manage cravings or protracted withdrawal symptoms so they can focus on their treatment and recovery efforts.2
Naltrexone is an opioid antagonist that is used as a maintenance medication to reduce the risk of relapse.5 A long-acting formulation of naltrexone (i.e., Vivitrol—a monthly injectable, extended-release form of naltrexone) was originally FDA-approved for the treatment of alcohol use disorders; however, it has been used for opioid use disorders since 2010.2, 5 Naltrexone discourages alcohol and opioid use and aids in abstinence by blocking some of the rewarding effects of both.11
Disulfiram (Antabuse) was approved by the FDA as an alcohol use deterrent in 1951.10 Disulfiram may reduce relapse risks due to the fact that it will elicit unpleasant symptoms such as nausea, flushing, and heart palpitations when alcohol is consumed while using the medication.10
Acamprosate is another FDA-approved medication used for the treatment of alcohol addiction. Acamprosate is safe to begin after a brief period of abstinence from alcohol, generally after 5 days, and can help patients avoid relapsing back to drinking.10 Acamprosate is thought to help restore some of the neurochemical imbalance that develops after a period of chronic alcohol use. In doing so, and by helping to manage some of the symptoms of protracted abstinence (symptoms that may persist beyond the acute withdrawal stage), acamprosate can help to reduce drinking behavior.10
How Effective Are Detox Medications?
Detox medications can be effective tool for helping to manage withdrawal symptoms and some can be very effective after detox to help individuals stay in recovery.1, 4, 10 However, medications are just one tool, and are often combined with other evidence-based addiction treatment, such as behavioral therapy.2 Medication can help to reduce cravings and reduce drug or alcohol use, and therapy can help people develop coping skills, identify triggers, and address the underlying issues that contribute to addiction.2
Detox from Drugs and Alcohol at River Oaks Treatment Center
If you are considering detox for yourself or a loved one, safe and effective treatment is available at River Oaks. At our Tampa-St Pete drug and alcohol rehab, our compassionate treatment specialists use evidence-based and individualized care to help people get on the road to recovery.
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