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Outpatient Detox: What is it? Finding a Center

Medically Reviewed By: Benjamin Caleb Williams RN, BA, CEN

Written By: Phillippe Greenough

Article Updated: 09/14/2020

Number of References: 4 Sources

Outpatient detox centers are a flexible, but nonetheless effective, way to treat drug or alcohol addiction while still maintaining a more normal work, school, or family life. Outpatient programs are also more cost-effective, flexible, and customizable due to the relatively small amount of time someone will spend at the facility each week. While these programs may differ slightly between providers or the substance someone is detoxing from, they are fairly standardized. Here, we will take a look at some of the common features of outpatient detox programs.

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What Is Outpatient Detox?

These types of drug detox centers provide flexibility and the ability to return home after sessions each night. The experience of detox may be extremely uncomfortable unless medication is used to manage the symptoms. Outpatient detox programs typically use a series of medications, medical monitoring, and therapies to reduce discomfort and provide support to those new in recovery. These programs essentially act as an introduction to sobriety, giving someone the tools they need to successfully detox from drugs or alcohol, and make a solid beginning towards a new life.

Is Outpatient Detox Right For You?

Outpatient programs are intended for people who may be experiencing withdrawal from either drugs or alcohol, but whose symptoms are not of life-threatening severity. Since they do not provide 24-hour monitoring, they are designed for people who have mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms.

Some of the criteria for entering an outpatient program includes factors such as:

  • Infrequent or Mild Daily Drug Use
  • Short Term Heavy Drug Users (less than 1 year)
  • Previous, Failed Attempts to Quit Using by Themselves
  • Legal, Family, Social, or Financial Problems Due To Drug Use
  • If Someone Suffers From Co-Occurring Mental Health Issues
  • Reliable Transportation To and From The Facility

Everyone experiencing withdrawal will typically think it can’t get much worse, and that their symptoms are severe. The first step in determining the level of symptoms is to have an assessment, where talking to a doctor about the amounts of drugs or alcohol someone used will give medical professionals a good idea of the expected severity of symptoms they may experience.

Additionally, outpatient detox is maybe best suited to someone who is highly motivated to recover from drug addiction or alcoholism. With the responsibility to make appointments totally up to the individual, if someone were not motivated to make this happen their chances of success are very low. If this motivation is lacking, then inpatient treatment may be the best choice for them if they hope to complete detox and remain sober.

Inpatient Detox Guide

Types of Outpatient Detox

Outpatient programs come in several different intensity levels, all of which provide the flexibility to continue work, school, or family commitments while receiving treatment. These programs are also much cheaper than inpatient detox programs since patients are only at the facility for several hours a day. These programs are typically between 5 and 30 days long, but some programs may offer 60 or 90-day options. By definition, if someone is eligible for outpatient it is because they are not suffering severe withdrawal symptoms. The milder the symptoms, the sooner they will typically resolve.

Some of the different care and intensity levels of outpatient includes:

Outpatient Program (OP)

This style of program is usually between 3 and 5 hours per day and includes medications, therapy, and social support services. This may be an adjunct treatment option for after someone has completed an inpatient or more comprehensive outpatient program as this style of outpatient is not necessarily a good fit for someone who may still be experiencing strong cravings.

Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP)

Intensive outpatient programs are usually between 6 and 8 hours per day and are intended for social reintegration and promoting healthy behaviors. These programs are often used as a reintroduction to normal life after someone has gone through detox and treatment. While these programs are time-consuming, they still allow patients to return home at night while providing a good level of structure throughout the day.

Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP)

Partial hospitalization programs are the highest level of outpatient treatment available. These programs are usually between 8 to 10 hours per day but still allow patients to return home each night. They are intended for those who are experiencing intense cravings and moderate symptoms during detox. The medical supervision is comprehensive, as someone will usually see a nurse daily, a psychiatrist several times a week, while still participating in the usual classes, therapy, and support groups throughout their time in a PHP program.

What To Expect

The first thing someone does when beginning an outpatient program is to have an assessment. This consists of an interview-style appointment with a doctor, nurse, or caseworker where someone will describe their using history such as the amounts used and the duration of use. Based on this, a fairly accurate estimate of the expected withdrawal symptoms can be made, and initial medication doses can be determined.

Programs are fairly standard, with typically only minor differences in approach. Depending on if someone is detoxing from alcohol or drugs, there may be changes in the specifics of the detox program. Some of these differences include:

  • Benzodiazepines & Alcohol: A person may be on site for several (5-6) hours per day for medication and monitoring. These drugs carry a much higher risk of seizure during detox, and therefore a more intensive form of medical detox is commonly required in these cases.
  • Opioids: While normally not life-threatening, opioid withdrawal is extremely unpleasant. Medications may be used to reduce this discomfort, and trips to the detox facility will primarily consist of the administration of medications. In addition, doctor or psychiatrist appointments may be used to gauge the effectiveness of the prescribed medications and adjust doses as needed.
  • Stimulants: While there are very few medications that are FDA approved to treat drug addictions other than opioids and benzos, there are a variety of medications that are still effective. Trips to an outpatient detox for non-opioid drug detox will usually consist of medications and most likely several psychiatrist appointments.

For the most part, outpatient is a straightforward program that can usually last between 5 to 30 days but maybe longer in certain programs. Someone will go once a day for several hours to receive medications and check in with their doctor and/or psychiatrist. Additionally, there are often counseling sessions including group and individual therapy. These appointments will be a status update on the symptoms, and how the medications are working. Medication adjustments may be made depending on the outcome of these appointments.

Someone attending an outpatient program may also have a caseworker assigned to them to offer further treatment plans or suggestions. Meetings with a caseworker, usually several times a week, may be used to suggest additional steps someone may take to gain support during detox. This includes recommendations to attend 12 step groups, get a sponsor, and develop an aftercare plan for continuing someone’s recovery after detox has been completed.

The First Step

Detox is only the first step in the journey of recovery. It is aimed at safely and comfortably helping someone to break their physical dependence on their substance of choice. Once this is done, continued treatment is always recommended, as years of addictive behavior cannot normally be undone in just a few weeks. A life free from addiction is possible, so long as someone is willing to put in the work.

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