Detox is a complex process. When you take drugs or drink alcohol, it negatively affects a wide range of normal physical functions. It also alters your ability to make decisions, understand risk, perceive reward and remember important events. When you quit using drugs or alcohol, not only is your body ridding itself of dangerous substance toxins, but it also begins the slow return to normal physical and psychological function. This process is called detox.


Your Body on Drugs

Drugs are chemicals that are foreign to your body. Your body and brain exist in a complicated state of chemical balance. When you take drugs, you upset that balance and feel the physical and mental effects. The human body is adaptable, though, and always seeks balance. Therefore, as you continue to abuse your substance of choice, your system works around it to maintain balance.

It’s kind of like tying a rope around a tree. Go back to the site of your favorite rope swing from when you were a kid, and you’ll probably see that where the most pressure was on the rope, that section of rope disappeared into the tree. The tree is a living thing, continuing to grow even with a rope tied around it. Where the rope limited the amount of space the tree had to expand, over time, the tree just grew around it.

Like the tree, your body can alter its growth to accommodate the foreign substances you put in it, but everyone has a threshold. For example, stimulants increase heart rate. A healthy heart can withstand an increased rate for short periods of time, like when something scares you and you feel your heart race. However, increasing your heart rate continually, for long periods of time, or too much beyond its normal rate will have a tragic result. There is no way of predicting how much additional stress your heart can handle.

does drug detox work

The heart is controlled by the brain, as are the rest of the muscles in the body. When you kill brain cells by consuming foreign chemicals, you alter the way your brain works. The adult brain continues to grow new cells even under the influence of drugs. However, the cells it grows are not exact replicas of the ones it lost. Instead, the brain adapts to the chemical intrusion and grows new cells around it.

If you’ve ever known someone who walks better drunk than sober or seems to think more clearly while he’s high, you’ve seen the result of brain cell adaptation. Instead of improving the thought process, the drugs are permanently changing the brain matter to accommodate it. It’s kind of like going through life believing the sky is green. You’re thinking; you’re just not thinking right.

Your Body During Detox

How long it takes you to detox depends almost entirely on the substances you abused, how much you use and how frequently you abuse them. Some substances cause intense physical and emotional detox symptoms. Others cause persistent emotional symptoms only. These cravings can last for months, or even years. However, with professional help, overcoming cravings is possible.

drug detox process

Physical withdrawal symptoms, in general, last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. The more you use, the longer detox lasts. Although the withdrawal symptoms of most substances lessen in severity as time passes, this isn’t always the case. If you abuse a benzodiazepine drug such as Xanax, the detox can last even longer than a few weeks, and the symptoms will wax and wane in intensity.

The substances that cause physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Alcohol — Never detox from alcohol suddenly or by yourself. Withdrawal symptoms can be fatal.
  • Heroin and morphine
  • Narcotic painkillers such as Vicodin, OxyContin, hydrocodone, oxycodone and Percocet
  • Benzodiazepines — Benzos include drugs such as Xanax, alprazolam and Klonopin
  • Methamphetamine

The substances most closely associated with persistent psychological or emotional withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • LSD
  • Magic mushrooms

It’s important to understand that just because a drug does not cause physical withdrawal symptoms doesn’t mean detox isn’t hard. Cocaine, for example, is widely considered one of the world’s most dangerous and addictive drugs. Quitting cocaine without help can cause profound depression and anxiety that can last for months or longer.

Why Detox is Important

Drug and alcohol use become abuse when addiction takes hold. The amount of time it takes to become addicted depends on the substance and the person. Some people are hooked after their very first hit of cocaine, while others begin using alcohol casually and don’t experience addiction until a life-altering event pushes them to rely on alcohol for emotional relief. Breaking that addiction allows you to stop putting these toxic substances into your body. The first step, though, is detox.

how long does it take to detox

Detox is necessary to clean up your system and get it working right again. Because drugs alter your body and brain chemistry, substance abuse can lead to a number of health problems including:

  • Heart damage
  • Liver disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Brain damage
  • Insomnia

Many of these conditions can be reversed if you can get the toxins out of your system. It may seem like you’ve already done too much damage to your body to ever be well again, but even brain cells regenerate. By going through detox, you can stop damaging your body and give it a chance to heal itself. You’d be surprised what a clean and sober body is capable of.

Detox is the first step to breaking the addiction, and even an addiction that has gone on for years can be overcome. But it can’t happen while the drugs are still in your system. If your body is physically addicted to a substance, it will fight your efforts to stop taking that substance. There is a large mental component to addiction, as well. No matter what you believe, you cannot think clearly when you’re high. Once you’ve gone through detox, the rehabilitation to break your addiction can begin.

Types of Detox

Certainly, if you could just stop taking drugs, you would. Detoxification from any heavy substance abuse requires medical supervision. Even if you don’t think your drug abuse is that bad, it is a good idea to detox with help. There are different drug detox methods. Choosing the right one depends on what your substance of choice is, how long and heavy your usage, and what facilities are available to you.

Ultra-Rapid Detox

drug detox methods

The ultra-rapid detox technique is one method used in detoxing from opiates and narcotics like heroin, Percocet, and oxycodone. The patient is sedated while a drug is administered to block opiate activity in the system. The theory is that the opiate blocker will speed up detox, but because of being sedated, the patient won’t experience the painful side effects detox can create.

This procedure is done in a hospital intensive care type environment. The use of general anesthesia presents a certain risk at any time. There is controversy over whether this method really mitigates withdrawal symptoms. Some say it is not worth the risk of anesthesia.

Ultra-rapid detox, as the name suggests, is fast. The detoxification takes about 4-8 hours. With proper monitoring of the recovery from anesthesia, patients typically leave the intensive care unit after 48 hours.

Stepped Rapid Detox

In this detoxification procedure, the process is sped up with Narcan injections. Small doses of Narcan block the receptor cells, so the drugs pass through the system without having any effect. The speed of the detox is controlled by the Narcan dosage, and other drugs are used to ease withdrawal symptoms. The patient is fully alert during this process and participates by describing the severity of the symptoms so medication can be adjusted accordingly. Stepped rapid detox generally takes 3-4 days to complete but varies greatly by patient.

Replacement Therapy

Methadone is commonly used to detox from narcotics. Methadone is an opioid that reduces withdrawal symptoms without producing the high that opiates do. It is prescribed to replace the narcotics, and the dose is slowly reduced until all of the drugs are out of the system. There are a couple things to be aware of with methadone, however. It does not keep a person from using other drugs unless it is administered in a controlled environment like a residential facility. Drug users who try this method without the proper supervision sometimes relapse and end up overdosing because they don’t account for the methadone already in their system. Without relapse, methadone detox takes approximately 21 days.

Alcohol Detox Method

Detoxification from alcohol abuse begins with a complete cessation of drinking. Withdrawal symptoms are then monitored and treated as needed. If the patient was a particularly heavy drinker or has sustained liver damage, detox may begin with medication to reduce withdrawal symptoms.

Keep in mind that the point of detox is to get the foreign chemicals out of your body. Any medications that are used in the detox process will have an effect on the system and eventually need to be purged, as well. In some cases, medications are required to help the body make the harsh transition back to normal, but some of those medications put an increased demand on the liver, an organ that might already be damaged from drug abuse. In general, the fewer medications you put in while attempting to detox, the better. But this is why medical supervision is important.

Why Not Detox Yourself?

Addicts make a lot of excuses for their behavior including that the reason they don’t go to rehab is because they can do it themselves. Except for ultra-rapid detox, the methods of detoxification don’t seem very sophisticated. Basically, you stop taking the drugs, and you suffer through some withdrawal symptoms. If you are frugal or just a very private person, you may be tempted to just do it yourself, in the privacy of your own home.

In certain rare cases, detoxing at home works. For everyone else, it is just another false start on their road to rehab. One of the benefits of a monitored detox program is that it helps you break the habit of using drugs. If you could stop by yourself, you wouldn’t still be smoking, drinking, snorting, or popping pills. It is impossible to get the toxins out of your system while you are still putting them in.

Another reason you don’t want to try this at home is the pain of withdrawal. It’s not like any other pain you’ve experienced. When the withdrawal symptoms begin, taking an aspirin is not going to help you. Addicts in pain tend to use drugs. During withdrawal, there is a tremendous urge to just go back to using to end the pain. In a monitored detox program, you will have access to specific medications that will reduce your symptoms and not jeopardize your recovery.

Recovery is the goal, and detox is only the first step. There are physical dangers inherent in suddenly removing certain drugs from your system. It would be like riding a bike when suddenly someone pulls the bike out from under you. You know how to ride a bike and you are perfectly capable of walking, but you cannot make an instantaneous transition from one activity to the other, otherwise, you fall flat on your face. Detoxification is safest when it is done under medical supervision to assist your vital systems in making the transition, if needed.

Detoxing is Hard

Rather than worry about how long it takes to detox, focus on the actual process. The length of time required to complete the drug detox process is increased exponentially by relapse. In order for detox to work, you have to stop using drugs. As soon as you go back to using, the partial detoxification you have already suffered through doesn’t count, and you have to start over.

Detoxification does not end your addiction. While you are detoxing, you will likely have some urge to use drugs. It is a habit that doesn’t just go away overnight. Just abstaining long enough to get clean can be an act of teeth-gritting determination and super human strength. You might as well figure some extra time into your detox schedule for relapse.

A protracted detox method can take at least 21 days. In the beginning, it might not be too difficult to stay off drugs because the replacement drug will keep you from feeling any withdrawal symptoms. As the doses step down slowly, you may be able to avoid any pain. But what about the pain that caused you to use drugs in the first place? The medication will not do anything to change that pain, and it is likely to increase when you stop getting high.

drug detox process

If you choose a fast detox method, you are less likely to relapse during the process. Your body will be so busy dealing with withdrawal symptoms that you might not have the opportunity to take more drugs – until it is over.  Two or three days is not long enough to break a habit, especially one as strong as getting high. Your body will be clean, but your mind hasn’t changed yet. There is a chance that you’ll be “scared straight” by the ordeal of detoxification. In time, however, as memories fade, your desire to get high could overtake your fear of revisiting detox.

No matter what method you use, once you relapse, detox is null and void. You’ll have to start all over again. Doing two or more consecutive courses of detox can get very time consuming and expensive.

Shortening Detox

The sooner you start the drug detox process, the sooner you finish. If you want to get through detox quickly, start right away. If you put it off for a week or a month, it will take that much longer to get through it. While in the throes of addiction, it is not easy to be logical or make plans beyond your next fix. If you have even a momentary thought that you would like to quit abusing drugs, act on that thought immediately. It may seem impulsive, but it will save you time in the long run.

The real question, though, is not “how long does it takes to detox?” The question to ask is, “how many times are you going to have to do it?” Having the right medical supervision and following up with a solid rehab program will help avoid relapses that send you back to the beginning. It is certainly faster to detox once than to detox multiple times.

detox2How Rehab Can Help

If you are addicted to drugs or alcohol, going to a rehab center can help you feel stronger faster. Rehab doesn’t make detox and recovery easy, but it can make it more manageable. Some rehab centers offer medically assisted detox, which improves sleep, appetite and general discomfort. It also helps you avoid relapse. Relapsing during withdrawal can be especially dangerous, and it may result in overdose.

There are alcohol and drug detox centers all over the world that can help you get clean. Visit Rehab Center Rankings to find a facility close to you. The centers on our list can answer all of your questions about detox and more. They will prescribe the right detox method for your situation. They will also handle your follow-up rehabilitation with a suitable program. Many of these centers offer individualized support for the whole detox and rehab process.

The amount of time you spend detoxing is not as important as the effort you make to break your addiction, so you never have to go through detox again. With professional support, you can rid your body of the toxins you’ve taken in and begin to heal the physical damage. Rehab programs provide the help and understanding you need to capitalize on your detoxification by breaking the addiction, as well.

Finding the Right Rehab Program

You have several choices when it comes to finding the right rehab program. Outpatient rehab often does not provide comprehensive, medically assisted detox services, which means you’ll have to get sober on your own. Rapid detox gives you support during the first few days but offers nothing for emotional withdrawal. Residential rehabs often provide both detox and long-term services, but it’s the most expensive of all. Insurance sometimes covers the expenses associated with both outpatient and residential rehab.

To choose the rehab program that’s right for you, review our top-ranked rehab centers, and call a counselor for more information.