Detox Local

Veteran Addiction Withdrawal and Detox Guide

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

Written By: Gary Bowers

Article Updated: 01/22/2021

Number of References: 9 Sources

Our country’s veterans deserve the best we can offer. Helping veterans receive quality detox treatment is one way we can honor their service and sacrifice. For many who heed the call in serving and protecting our country, the real battles begin when they return home. Every day, substance use disorder (SUD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mental health issues, and suicide threaten veterans in civilian life. Here we will examine some of the unique challenges faced by veterans as well as some resources and solutions.

In This Article:

De Oppresso Liber

The pain and uncertainty of drug and alcohol withdrawal will deter many veterans from seeking care. There are many other factors that converge to create an environment where veterans are unlikely to seek help for addiction and/or mental illness. The stigma surrounding mental illness and substance abuse, and military culture of self-reliance also play a role in this crisis.

The somber irony here is that no war can be won by a single person, and a single person cannot simply will themselves into recovery. Recovery is a team effort. Recovery is a community. Recovery requires effort, diligence, and quality care. Our veterans deserve support to resolve the crisis of addiction and co-occurring mental illness.

By The Numbers - Addiction in the Veteran Community

Addiction and mental health challenges are unfortunately quite common in the military veteran communities all over the US. To put some numbers to this, we can see that:

  • 1 in 15 veterans have a substance use disorder as of 2013, however the numbers are significantly higher for veterans aged 18-25
  • Alcohol is the most abused drug by veterans
  • Opioid abuse is rising among veterans
  • 27% of veterans in VA care with PTSD also have substance use disorder
  • Illicit drug use is higher among those who are not actively serving.
  • Many veterans are exposed to opioids during active duty, where they are prescribed to treat injuries during deployment.
  • It’s estimated that 11% of homeless adults are veterans. Many of those veterans have mental illness and/or substance use disorder.
  • Veteran death by suicide rates have risen consistently, and are substantially higher in:
    • Veterans aged 18-34
    • Veterans with opioid use disorder
    • Veterans with depression

Common Signs of Drug Withdrawal for Veterans

Drug and alcohol withdrawal can be painful and dangerous. Seeking help in treating withdrawal symptoms isn’t a sign of “weakness”. Anyone who has struggled with addiction would tell you receiving help can be the ultimate sign of strength because it is often the hardest thing to do.
A veteran may not readily ask for help, so it’s important to recognize the signs of drug withdrawal.

  • Anger and Aggression: There are many interwoven elements at play with anger and aggression, as they can also be signs of other issues like PTSD, but they are very frequently psychological side effects of drug and alcohol withdrawal. This may be especially prevalent with younger veterans or veterans who have returned from a recent deployment.
  • Anxiety, Depression, Mood Swings: These symptoms may coincide with anger, but they will typically manifest themselves in more subtle ways. Drugs and alcohol will severely alter brain chemistry and during withdrawal, the brain’s regenerative processes kick into overdrive. Anxiety may only be present in social situations, or unstructured events. Depression will result in a lack of interest or motivation to carry out normal tasks, or even participation in activities someone would typically enjoy. If a vet who normally likes hunting or the outdoors suddenly begins to prefer staying inside, that could be a result of symptoms brought on by withdrawal.
  • Illness or Flu-like Symptoms: Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, aches, and pains are all symptoms of withdrawal. While these may seem easy to treat on the surface if they are associated with withdrawal, they can be very harmful or deadly without medical care. Detox facilities are prepared to treat these symptoms. If someone is getting sick often or displays these symptoms on a regular basis it could be cause for concern.
  • Psychosis or Psychotic Episodes: These events may be rare in general, but more common in those suffering from PTSD, but they are terrifying and dangerous. A psychotic episode may involve hallucinations, strange or unexplained sensory distortions (hearing, seeing, feeling things that are not there), and confusion. Psychosis is typically associated with withdrawal from cocaine and other stimulants but can occur in alcohol and benzo withdrawal. Detox centers can help treat these conditions. If someone is experiencing these symptoms, seek help immediately.
  • Frequent Absenteeism: Someone going through withdrawal may pull back from family and friends in an effort to keep the pain and suffering of their withdrawal from others. If this behavior coincides with drug-seeking behavior like staying out late or being absent for long periods of time, this could be a sign of withdrawal.

Detox facilities are fully prepared to recognize and treat all signs and symptoms of withdrawal. If someone you know is showing these signs of withdrawal, seek the help of the professionals at detox centers.

Withdrawal Symptoms of Drugs Commonly Abused By Veterans

Physical symptoms of withdrawal can vary from drug to drug. Their extent and severity will be closely tied to the extent of the abuse.

  • Alcohol: Withdrawal from alcohol can be deadly. Serious symptoms include seizures and delirium tremens, a condition marked by confusion and hallucinations. Other symptoms include shaking, insomnia, sweating, and headaches. When managed by medical professionals, alcohol can often be done safely and with minimal long-term complications. There are FDA-approved medications that detox centers can prescribe to reduce the discomfort of alcohol withdrawal.
  • Stimulants: Stimulants can be very dangerous, and withdrawal symptoms from cocaine or Adderall can include shaking, depression, loss of appetite, and anxiety. In addition to the aforementioned psychological side effects, withdrawal from cocaine and other stimulants can cause deep depression and anxiety.

There are no FDA-approved medications for treating stimulant withdrawal. The most dangerous symptoms are psychological symptoms, and suicide is, unfortunately, a real risk during stimulant withdrawal. Having psychiatric care and observation during stimulant withdrawal is very important.

  • Heroin and Other Opiates: Opioids would include prescription painkillers like Oxycontin and Vicodin. Heroin, fentanyl, and morphine are other opioids that are commonly abused. Withdrawal from opioids is incredibly painful and uncomfortable, and, in rare cases, deadly. Symptoms are typically very consistent and include body/joint aches and pains, runny rose, and increased blood pressure.

The most dangerous symptoms of opiate withdrawal include vomiting and diarrhea which can lead to severe dehydration if untreated. There are FDA-approved medications that can treat opioid dependence, and could be prescribed as a part of ongoing treatment. Medically-managed detox is always recommended

  • Benzodiazepines and Other Sedatives: Benzodiazepines (benzos) are frequently prescribed for anxiety and sleep disorders. Benzos can be addictive and it’s possible for people to become physically dependent on them which can lead to dangerous and deadly complications during withdrawal. Serious benzo withdrawal symptoms would include seizures, hallucinations, and delirium. Other symptoms include insomnia, muscle spasms, and increased blood pressure.

Withdrawal can be treated. When the detox process is overseen by medical professionals, the chances of safe detox and lasting recovery dramatically improve.

What To Look For In Veteran Detox Centers

Our veterans deserve specialized care, and thankfully there are many options that will be tailored to their needs. For veterans who choose not to receive treatment from the VA, it can be helpful to look for programs that cater to their specific needs. Here are some points to consider:

  • PTSD and MST Programs: 1 in 4 veterans who suffer from PTSD or MST (Military Sexual Trauma) also have Substance Use Disorder. Treating these conditions in a holistic and coordinated way can lead to better long-term outcomes. PTSD-specific programs will use a variety of evidence-based treatments to help break down the traumatic event and promote healing. One of the ground-breaking new forms of therapy being used to treat PTSD is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). This form of therapy can help relieve the stress and emotional pain caused by helping someone reframe their experience in an objective way.
  • Gender-Specific Programs: Some veterans prefer gender-specific programs with fellow veterans. The bond shared between men in combat, for example, can’t be easily understood by many people; receiving treatment with men who share this experience may be extremely valuable in precipitating recovery. Beyond the biological differences, there are often deep-rooted cultural expectations and beliefs that people associate with gender. Gender-specific therapy breaks down and removes the barriers of gender bias in recovery.
  • Drug-Specific Programs: Alcohol is the most commonly abused drug among veterans. Finding a treatment center that offers drug-specific treatment can help by offering specialized knowledge and expertise. Having staff and fellow patients who deeply understand the power of a specific drug can create a sense of community and bonding. That bonding can lead to a more successful recovery. Alcohol and drug-specific programs are very helpful not only helpful from a camaraderie standpoint, but medically speaking, drug-specific detox programs will feature specialized knowledge and expertise, which can greatly improve the quality of care.
  • For Veterans, By Veterans: Isolation and a lack of connection can be a factor in substance use disorders. Finding a detox center that not only caters to veterans but employs veterans can help erase the disconnect some veterans feel when re-entering civilian life Additionally, veteran-friendly detox centers will have access to diverse support groups and networks which can help support the recovery process long after detox is complete.
  • Transitional Housing and After-Care Programs: 1 in 10 veterans returning from deployment will face housing challenges. This, combined with a lack of support structure, can lead to a cycle of addiction and homelessness. Homelessness is also a major factor in suicide rates among veterans. Treatment centers that provide transitional housing and long-term aftercare programs can help neutralize the cycle of homelessness.

Types of Drug Detox Centers for Veterans

There are 3 main types of medical detox centers for veterans. Each will offer unique benefits. Understanding their differences will be helpful in making recovery-related decisions.

Inpatient Detox: Inpatient detox would involve staying in the facility. These residential-style facilities would offer 24/7 support and care in a community-recovery style setting. Medical and non-medical therapies would be offered, including group therapy, and one on one behavioral therapy with a licensed therapist.

Outpatient Detox: Outpatient detox programs are perfect for veterans who are balancing career or school with their addiction treatment. These programs are slightly less intensive than inpatient programs but will offer therapy and treatment on a range of schedules that can easily accommodate a variety of schedules. Many outpatient programs will also be affiliated with after-care programs to help create a stable recovery plan.

Rapid Detox: Rapid detox centers are a fairly new form of medical detox that will offer 24/7 observation, and comprehensive medical treatments to complete the detox process as quickly as possible. The effectiveness and safety of rapid detox are still up for debate, and it is often significantly more expensive than other forms of detox.

Additional Resources

Recovery is possible and you are never alone! Here are some veteran-specific resources that can help keep you connected and focused on your recovery.

  • Death by suicide is preventable. If you or someone you know is in crisis, visit or call the Veterans Crisis Line. Toll-Free 24/7 Support at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1.
  • The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans is a non-profit organization that offers numerous services for veterans, coordinating with local, state, and federal agencies to offer housing programs, legal aid, and case management support for veterans.
  • Get involved. Programs like The Wounded Warrior Project are making a difference for our veterans. Giving back to the ones who have given us freedom can promote healing!
  • The National Veterans Foundation has a long list of verified resources for veterans including information on housing, medical benefits, mental health, and employment.

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