What Is Detoxification?

Detoxification (detox) is the process of clearing the body of drugs or alcohol that an individual has consumed. The purpose of detox is to safely manage withdrawal symptoms when someone stops taking drugs or alcohol.

Everyone has a different experience with detox. The type of drug and how long it was used affect what detox will be like.

Medications used in detox help keep former users comfortable while the drugs leave their body.

It can take days or months to get through withdrawal symptoms for most drugs. The length of withdrawal depends on a number of factors, including:

  • Type of substance the user is addicted to
  • Duration of addiction has lasted
  • Method of abuse (snorting, smoking, injecting, or swallowing)
  • Amount of substance taken
  • Family history
  • Underlying medical conditions

Speak with someone who can help you find a medically assisted detox.


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Safety during the detoxification process and the importance of continued rehabilitation is detailed by Dr. Ashish Bhatt, MD.

How Long Does Detox Take?

As aforementioned, the length of detox can vary based on several factors. Generally speaking, withdrawal symptoms from alcohol may level off inside of a week (if users are attempting to quit drinking alone, especially after heavy use, they may face serious health risks and even death during that week.) Other drugs, like benzodiazepines, may require a longer detox timetable; it could be up to 2 weeks or longer.

In just about every case, however, the time that it takes to get the harmful substances out of the body is generally less important than making long-term changes to ensure that the user won’t relapse — and that recurring triggers can be managed effectively. Both inpatient and outpatient rehab can help those struggling with problematic use of drugs or alcohol not only get through detox as quickly and comfortably as possible, but also gain new coping strategies that will enable them to weather any unpleasant mental or physical symptoms of withdrawal that may occur down the line.

In the worst-case scenario, a user attempts detox on their own and either succumbs to their health complications or ends up relapsing shortly afterward; this causes the whole cycle to begin again. One of the best ways to break that cycle for good is through treatment.

Featured Centers Offering Drug and Alcohol Detox

Can I Detox At Home?

Choosing to detox at home can be dangerous and potentially deadly. Quitting “cold turkey” or without medical supervision can lead to serious issues such as seizures and severe dehydration.

There are inpatient and outpatient detox programs that help prevent dangerous complications. People with severe addictions should seek inpatient detox because withdrawal can be fatal. Inpatient detox includes 24-hour support and monitoring.

The Process Of Detoxification

Everyone’s detox needs are different. The drug detox process helps addicted people get personalized treatment. In most cases, the process involves 3 steps:

  • Evaluation

    The medical team screens incoming patients for physical and mental health issues. Doctors use blood tests to measure the amount of drugs in the patient’s system. This helps determine the level of medications needed.

    There is also a comprehensive review of drug, medical, and psychiatric histories. This information sets up the basis for the patient’s long-term treatment plan.

  • Stabilization

    The next step is to stabilize the patient with medical and psychological therapy. The goal of stabilization is to prevent any form of harm to the patient. Doctors can prescribe addiction treatment medications to prevent complications and reduce withdrawal symptoms.

  • Preparing Entry Into Treatment

    The final step of detox is preparation for a treatment program. Doctors familiarize their patients with the treatment process and what to expect. Inpatient rehab offers the best chances of success after detox.

Side Effects Of Detox

The process of drug detox can be painful and dangerous. This is why medical detox is so important. Detox with medical supervision allows patients to detox in a safe and comfortable environment. The extent of supervision is different in inpatient and outpatient rehab.

A medically supervised detox prevents dangerous complications of drug and alcohol withdrawal.

Although medical detox limits the symptoms of withdrawal, some are unavoidable. Some of the most common side effects may include:

  • Nervousness or anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Body discomfort
  • Mood swings
  • Poor sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating

Drug Detox During Pregnancy

A pregnant woman has a strong motive to quit drugs. Drinking alcohol or using drugs while pregnant can harm not only the mother but also the fetus, as these substances cross the placenta. Detox, especially if done cold turkey, can cause stress on the fetus such as preterm labor or severe fetal distress.

Detox with medical supervision is an absolute must for pregnant women, as withdrawal symptoms may be especially harmful to the fetus. The goal of detox for pregnant women is to prevent relapse and manage pain.

Detox specialists can keep fetuses safe and healthy by treating pregnant women in detox.

Doctors often prescribe medications to stabilize pregnant women in detox. Opiate and alcohol detox usually pose the most risks to the fetus.

Detox By Drug Type

Detox is more difficult for some people depending on the drugs they used. Depending on the drug, withdrawal symptoms may be more physical or more mental.

Cocaine withdrawal, for instance, is psychological. Detox involves managing initial cravings and anxiety. But alcohol withdrawal includes physical symptoms that can cause seizures or death in some cases.

Detox often includes medications that mimic the effects of drugs to reduce withdrawal symptoms. Medications may also target co-occurring disorders or general discomfort.

Drugs that are most dangerous to detox from, and often require medication, include alcohol and benzodiazepines. The drugs that are considered the most uncomfortable to detox from are opioids, especially heroin.

Rapid And Ultra-Rapid Detox And Risks

Rapid detox is a method of removing substances from a user’s system faster than regular detox. Advocates of rapid detox say it’s a faster way to get the drugs out of the body while avoiding painful withdrawal symptoms.

Rapid detox can be dangerous as well as expensive.

In rapid detox, a person with a substance use disorder (SUD) is sedated with anesthesia and given medications that replace the drugs in the body. This method was originally developed for people addicted to opiate drugs like heroin and painkillers. The risks of rapid detox often outweigh the benefits.

Rapid detox can cause:

  • Heart attack
  • Paranoia
  • High body temperature
  • Infection
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Choking
  • Death

“Ultra-rapid detox” programs can take as little as a few hours. Approximately 1 in 500 people die from ultra rapid detox, according to the Coleman Institute.

Traditional rapid detox programs take about 2 to 3 days to complete and carry less danger, but are still more expensive than a typical detox. It can cost up to $10,000 and isn’t generally covered by insurance.

Most people who complete rapid or ultra-rapid detox report continuation of withdrawal symptoms, albeit at a lower severity. Patients who choose rapid or ultra-rapid detox are much less likely to continue on in treatment, such as attending inpatient or outpatient rehab. Because of this, they are less likely to work on relapse prevention, possible co-occurring mental health conditions, and life planning and therefore more likely to experience relapse.

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Life After Detox

Detox is just the first part of addiction treatment. Detox on its own is usually insufficient for a successful recovery. Individuals seeking addiction treatment need to treat the psychological part of their addiction. They can accomplish this with counseling, support groups, or an inpatient rehab program. Contact a treatment provider to find a treatment center near you.