If you're an addict and you're wondering if you can die during drug detox, the short but honest answer is yes. However, deaths from detox and withdrawal are rare considering the number of addicts that undergo detox and the fact that many will detox and withdraw from substances a number of times in their life. However, the potential for life threatening complications during detox is frighteningly real for a small amount of people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Understanding this risk is critical to overcoming the "fear" barrier to treatment considering that even high-risk individuals can get specialized medical detox treatment to reduce or eliminate the potential dangers.
Acute Withdrawal Syndrome
Acute withdrawal syndrome is the condition that is responsible for the unpleasant and potentially dangerous symptoms associated with detox and withdrawal. This condition is neurological in nature and is difficult to explain in non-scientific/medical terms. In lay terms, nerve cells in the brain become either sensitized or desensitized by drug use, causing changes in the central nervous system. When drug abuse or alcohol is suddenly stopped once dependence has set in, these changes are essentially reversed, causing a host of symptoms that vary from patient to patient.
The duration and severity of symptoms related to AWS depend on many variables, but special consideration must be given to a number of substances that can be particularly dangerous:
When detoxing and going through acute withdrawal, alcoholics can experience life-threatening symptoms such as seizures, coma, delirium tremens and in rare cases, death.
Barbiturates are a class of drugs that are no longer prescribed as a result of the difficulty in regulating dosage. These types of drugs are still available on the street and can cause significant complications upon cessation and withdrawal, including many of the same problems as that of alcohol withdrawal; seizures, coma and death may result.
Benzodiazepines include highly addictive drugs like Valium and Xanax. This class of drugs can cause cardiac arrest, seizures, respiratory distress, coma and death.
While opiates are not generally known as a potentially deadly class of drugs to detox from, sudden cessation after addiction has set in can cause dangerous complications; most notably respiratory depression, which in some cases can be severe. Additionally, opiate-based drugs used to treat opiate addiction - such as Methadone, Suboxone and Naltrexone - can cause fatal complications during the initial stages of detox from the target drug, and later complications can result when withdrawing from the actual treatment drug.
Rapid detox is a relatively new technique that works by facilitating opiate withdrawal while the patient is under sedation. This method allows most of the unpleasant and potentially dangerous symptoms of withdrawal to occur while the patient is unconscious and being medically monitored.
Unfortunately, a number of reports of deaths from this practice have surfaced in recent years, and professionals have repeatedly stated that more research and peer-reviewed clinical studies need to be conducted before this can be accepted as a mainstream practice. In fact, several rapid detox centers have recently come under fire for patient deaths, including one in Australia where rapid detox services were blamed for 3 deaths at the same clinic (Care in three Sydney Detox Deaths Inadequate, Coroner Rules The Australian 09/27/2012.) and 6 deaths at a New Jersey rapid detox center (Davis, Robert 'Rapid detox' a quick fix for opiate addiction? USA Today.)
When Undergoing Rapid Detox, the Risk of Seizure, Coma and Death Depends on:
*Severity & Duration of Abuse
In general, the longer and more severe the substance abuse, the more challenging the withdrawal and detox process will be, and the more risks will be involved.
*Number and Severity of Previous Relapses/Withdrawals
As a result of a phenomenon referred to as the Kindling Effect, the severity and duration of withdrawal and detox will depend largely on the number of previous drug withdrawals and subsequent relapses. The Kindling Effect essentially states that the more relapse events that occur, the more severe each new withdrawal will be and the more likely it is that complications related to sudden drug cessation will lead to dangerous and potentially life-threatening conditions. (Davis, James F On the Downward Spiral: The Kindling Effect of Addiction Hive Health Media)
The physical health of the patient in question will have a significant impact on the body's ability to handle the symptoms and physiological processes of withdrawal. In general, poor states of health and hygiene often mean that detox and withdrawal will be worse than for those people who are in good health.
*Treatment Type and Protocols
The types of treatment and their various modalities play a large role in the safety and well being of a person undergoing detox. This is why it is critical that potential patients or their families carefully review or investigate the treatment or detox centers being considered, as each is likely quite different and some may not be an appropriate choice depending on the patient, the severity of their addiction and ability to pay for treatment.
In short, it is possible to die while going through detox and withdrawal. Fortunately, deaths are quite rare and in most cases symptoms can be easily managed with medication and various therapies. If you or someone you love is battling addiction and you're intimidated by the thought of detox; don't be. In most cases drug detox is safe and is proven to be effective at getting addicts through the initial acute stages of recovery from addiction or alcoholism. The consequences of continued substance abuse and a life of addiction are far worse and invariably lead to the loss of relationships, destruction of careers, violence, imprisonment, and for many; death.
Conversely, detox - when done correctly - only lasts for a few days to two weeks and can prevent a long descent into the desperation of addiction. Don't let fear of detox become a barrier to treatment; take action now, before disaster strikes.
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