At-Home Detox Dangers: Can You Do it Safely?
With around one out of every 12 American adults battling addiction in 2014, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), it is no surprise then that so many different methods exist for trying to process drugs (and alcohol) out of the body quickly. Detox “kits” are available for sale in drugstores, online, and over the counter, and they claim to help individuals safely process toxins and drugs out of the body in the comfort of their own home. These methods have not been proven effective, however, and may even be dangerous.
Detox is the time it takes for toxins to be processed out of the body. In the case of many drugs, and also alcohol, this process can be unpredictable and rife with potential complications.
Addiction is a brain disease that disrupts parts of the system that help to control impulses, regulate moods and emotions, think clearly, make good decisions, and feel happiness. Drugs and alcohol are considered mind-altering substances as they change brain chemistry, and many impact the functions of the central nervous system. With continued use, brain circuitry and chemistry can be altered, leading to drug dependence.
Addiction is a brain disease that disrupts parts of the system that help to control impulses, regulate moods and emotions, think clearly, make good decisions, and feel happiness. Drugs and alcohol are considered mind-altering substances as they change brain chemistry, and many impact the functions of the central nervous system. With continued use, brain circuitry and chemistry can be altered, leading to drug dependence. Drugs and alcohol are considered mind-altering substances as they change brain chemistry, and many impact the functions of the central nervous system. With continued use, brain circuitry and chemistry can be altered, leading to drug dependence.
One of the major side effects of drug dependence is the onset of difficult withdrawal symptoms when these substances stop working in the brain.
Several substances, such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates, can cause such severe withdrawal symptoms that they can be life-threatening. As a result, people are warned to never stop taking these substances “cold turkey” and without professional help as the consequences can be significant.
Many drug labels for prescription drugs that are commonly abused, like Xanax for example, even warn of the potential fatal consequences related to stopping these substances suddenly and without aid from a medical provider.
Possible Physical Complications during Detox
Detox will be different for everyone, and the severity and duration of withdrawal depend on many different factors. For instance, the type, amount, and method of drug abused can all play a role in drug dependence, and therefore withdrawal, as can personal and family history of addiction, underlying mental health or medical conditions, the amount of time abusing a particular substance, and biological and environmental factors. Abusing more than one drug or substance at a time can also complicate and exacerbate drug withdrawal and also detox. For these reasons, detox can be highly unpredictable. Symptoms of withdrawal can range from mild gastrointestinal upset and difficulties sleeping to seizures, coma, and even death.
Possible physical withdrawal symptoms during detox may include:
- Stomach cramps
- Muscle aches
- Dilated pupils
- Increased tear production
- Joint & bone pain
- Weight fluctuations
- Trouble breathing
- Muscle weakness
- Runny nose
- Blurry vision
Drug withdrawal is often the direct result of the brain and central nervous system trying to rebalance themselves after relying on the presence of mind-altering substances for a length of time. In the case of benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Valium, Ativan, and Klonopin) and alcohol, these substances work by increasing the presence of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in the brain. GABA is a neurotransmitter produced by the brain that lowers anxiety and stress in part by slowing down heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rates, and lowering body temperatures. Opioids (e.g., Vicodin, fentanyl, OxyContin, and heroin) are also central nervous system depressants with similar effects. When these drugs are no longer present in the brain, levels of GABA can drop significantly, and the brain may experience a rebound. Central nervous system functions that are essential for life may become highly irregular.
The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) reports that around half of people who are dependent on alcohol will experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking, and 3-5 percent of the time withdrawal symptoms can include potentially life-threatening seizures, high fever, extreme mental confusion, and delirium. This is called delirium tremens (DTs), which may be a side effect of withdrawal from alcohol, benzodiazepines, or barbiturates. DTs can be especially concerning as it may not appear right away. In fact, in the case of barbiturates (e.g., Nembutal, Amytal, Luminal, and Seconal), DTs may not appear, or reach its peak, until several days after stopping the drugs, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) warns.
Physical withdrawal symptoms can be severe and even life-threatening, requiring medical care during detox. Specific symptoms can be controlled with medications, and particular drugs of abuse may be slowly tapered off during medical detox instead of stopped suddenly in order to avoid possibly life-threatening complications.
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The Need for Supportive Care in Detox
At-home detox is unable to effectively manage the physical symptoms of drug withdrawal, and it also does not offer the supportive care that is such an integral part of professional detox programs. Psychoactive substances alter a person’s mental state by changing chemistry in the brain. Levels of serotonin and dopamine are often impacted. These are two of the brain’s chemical messengers that help to regulate emotions, facilitate sound decision-making abilities, and increase feelings of pleasure. When a person is dependent on drugs that disrupt the natural production, transmission, and reabsorption of these brain chemicals, normal chemical levels can dip when these drugs wear off. It may take some time for the brain to be able to produce them or move them around the central nervous system normally again. Depression, anxiety, irritability, restlessness, insomnia, agitation, drug cravings, mental confusion, depersonalization, derealization, psychosis, and difficulties feeling pleasure may then be side effects of altered brain chemistry manifested during drug withdrawal.
Moods can be so low during detox that they induce suicidal thoughts or actions. Hostility and aggression, as well as out-of-character behaviors may also be common. Individuals suffering from drug withdrawal may present a danger to themselves or those around them.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) publishes that close to 8 million Americans suffer from both addiction and a mental illness simultaneously as well. The presence of co-occurring disorders can make withdrawal symptoms more intense. As a result, specialized integrated care provided by highly trained medical and mental health professionals is the best option for recovery.
Additionally, relapse is also common during at-home detox attempts, as withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings can be significant enough to encourage a person to return to drug abuse in order to make them stop. A relapse after any amount of time of abstinence can be particularly dangerous since the brain may have had time to reset tolerance levels. What this means is that the person may return to taking drugs at previous levels only to suffer a toxic buildup in their system, causing an overdose as their body is no longer able to handle these amounts. Drug overdose is the number one cause of accidental death in the United States, reaching all-time highs in 2014. Close to 50,000 people died from a drug overdose that year, CNN reports.
A Safer Alternative to At-Home Detox
Detox programs in specialized facilities provide around-the-clock medical care and supervision to keep clients safe. Medical detox programs often use proven medications to manage side effects of drug withdrawal and cravings. Mental health support is also available during a detox program, offering encouragement and supportive care. The environment is calm, quiet, and stable.
Detox programs are typically short, around 3-7 days on average. Detox is not a “cure” for addiction, but it is often an important first step toward a long and healthy recovery. Detox should always be followed with an addiction treatment program to maintain sobriety on a long-term basis. As published in Psych Central, those who attend a formal detox program and then move on into a comprehensive treatment program are 10 times more likely to stay abstinent than those who only go through detox. A detox program can help to keep people safe while drugs are processed out of the body, and it can also provide a strong foundation for a subsequent addiction treatment program.
It’s not too late to start over