What is drug detox?

what is drug detox

The goal of any drug detox program is physiological rehabilitation after drug addiction. Detoxing at an accredited and licensed facility can prevent unpleasant and even fatal outcomes from suddenly quitting a drug. It can also aid the patient in succeeding in becoming abstinent from drug or alcohol use. This occurs first through stabilization then through a period of detoxification. After stabilization, the focus of detox is on monitoring and supporting the patient as the body cleanses itself of the drug’s toxins and goes through withdrawal symptoms.
Those who are considering rehab should know that drug detox is not a comprehensive treatment for drug addiction but rather the first step on the road to recovery.

There are both physical and psychological aspects of addiction, and it is vital to address both sides of the issue through both therapy and abstinence. The lingering cravings from being once addicted happen because of dramatic changes in the brain as a result of a history of substance abuse and need to be treated with care by an experienced professional. Although drug detox alone might help someone short-term, ongoing therapy and aftercare are essential to maintain sobriety and avoid a relapse.

Drug Withdrawal Symptoms

Sudden abstinence from an addictive drug can result in very different sets of withdrawal symptoms.

There are several factors that will ultimately determine the severity of the withdrawal symptoms:

  • Duration: Patients who have used a certain drug for an extended period of time will likely experience more severe withdrawal symptoms.
  • Multiple drugs: Each drug has its own unique withdrawal symptoms. Therefore, a patient who abuses several drugs, for example, opiates and stimulants, may experience withdrawal symptoms associated with both drug classes, rather than just one.
  • The amount of drugs taken: As a patient’s drug use increases, so does their tolerance. The withdrawal symptoms a patient experiences can directly be tied to the amount of the dosage that they take. For example, withdrawal symptoms for a daily cocaine user will be much more intense than the withdrawal symptoms for an individual that only abuses cocaine once a month.
  • Half-life: Withdrawal symptoms can vary depending on the length of time a drug stays in an individual’s systems. Drugs with a short half-life may be out of a patient’s system in a matter of days. However, drugs that have a longer half-life will result in a lengthier process of withdrawal.

What is drug detoxIt’s important for a patient to be monitored by a staff of healthcare professionals during the early stages of drug detox. Intense withdrawal symptoms including muscle aches, sweating and insomnia can be intense in the initial phases of drug detox and need to be monitored during this period.

There are always problems that can occur within the first few hours of detoxification. In a licensed facility, the most severe of these withdrawal symptoms will be addressed first.

A few examples of possible problems are:

  • Psychosis: When a person uses excessive amounts of a drug, they can become paranoid and may experience psychosis. Things they may experience include visual and auditory hallucinations and delusional thinking. Psychosis may also be brought on by a mental health disorder or a lack of sleep due to drug use. Other symptoms of psychosis include erratic behavior, suspiciousness, anxiety and depression.
  • Violence: Some users can become violent during drug detox. Patients who may present a danger to either others or themselves might require sedation or be restrained.  
  • Injury: Physical injuries that have occurred prior to a patient seeking treatment for their substance use disorders are typically treated before addiction treatment and drug detox commences.
  • Suicidal thoughts: The detox process can be very uncomfortable, and patients purging themselves of the toxins in drugs commonly experience depression that could lead to suicide attempts and even completed suicides.

Types of Drug Detox

It’s best to find the specific type of treatment that is best suited to handle your specific case of addiction and the kind of supervision you need during the drug detox process. Some of the more common forms of drug detox include:

  • Inpatient Detox: Inpatient detox takes place at a residential facility and is administered by a staff of medical and healthcare professionals. Most drug detox programs begin at an inpatient facility because the symptoms patients experience can be intense and need constant monitoring by a dedicated, well-trained staff.
  • Outpatient Detox: Outpatient drug detox isn’t usually the best initial form of detox because it isn’t as structured as inpatient programs. Outpatient drug detox works best for people without a severe addiction and require a patient to be disciplined, attend regular check-ups, and take their medication as prescribed.
  • At-Home Drug Detox: Detoxing at home is possible, but it’s not the wisest choice. Stopping abruptly from a drug could result in increased mental instability and physical symptoms that need to be monitored. Detoxing at home can result in the manifestation of severe withdrawal symptoms without adequate support to handle them.
  • Drug Detox Kits: Drug detox kits are available for almost any price range. However, they are not always safe for a number of reasons. First, they do not cater to a specific patient’s needs. If a patient has an underlying mental illness, for example, a drug detox kit will not be able to address the needs required to address this. Second, when detoxing using a kit, a patient is on their own. There are no medical professionals to aid, monitor and advise a patient when unexpected symptoms arise.

Drug detox at an around-the-clock facility that is staffed with health care professionals is always the best bet. It is highly recommended that patients do not try and detox on their own from a substance use disorder. Addiction treatment centers can provide the necessary monitoring, assessments and care that patients require during this highly sensitive period in the recovery process.

What to expect during drug detox

Every drug has its own withdrawal symptoms. Here’s a quick list of the most commonly abused drugs and the withdrawal symptoms that are commonly experienced with each:


  • Muscle aches
  • Sensitivity to pain
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Insomnia
  • Goosebumps
  • Rapid heartbeat

Alcohol and benzodiazepines

  • Moderate to severe depression
  • Anxiety
  • Burning sensations through the brain
  • Twitching
  • Seizures
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever


  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • Mental and physical exhaustion
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts


  • Loss of memory
  • Cognitive problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Nightmares
  • Chills
  • Sweating

Getting through drug or alcohol detox

In addition to the withdrawal symptoms, the process of drug detox can be very different depending on the drug.

Here are a few examples of how drug detox can vary depending on the drug that an individual is addicted to:

Opioid detox can be very different than detoxing from other drugs because of the different medications that are often administered when someone is detoxing from an opioid addiction. Medications including buprenorphine and methadone, which are partial and full opioid agonists, are administered in order to stabilize a patient. Once stabilized, a patient is tapered off these drugs so that their withdrawal symptoms diminish in a way that is comfortable and manageable. The overall duration of opioid withdrawal symptoms also varies. Heroin, for example, is relatively short acting, which means that withdrawal symptoms can be present hours after the last dose was taken. Painkillers, however, are longer-lasting, and as such, withdrawal symptoms may not manifest until days later and could last for weeks.

Alcohol detox could result in many of the aforementioned symptoms. One particularly severe symptom of alcohol detox is delirium, which could result in hallucinations, seizures and changes in mental function. Individuals with a particularly severe substance use disorder involving alcohol should seek medical attention for supervised detox. Benzodiazepines are often given to a patient who is detoxing from alcohol in order to treat withdrawal symptoms including anxiety, insomnia and seizures.

Stimulant detox from drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines can cause serious psychological distress to an individual. Symptoms including suicidal thoughts and serious depression are common during detox from stimulants. It’s highly recommended that individuals struggling with a substance use disorder detox in an inpatient facility because of the care from healthcare professionals that may be required. Outpatient facilities may not provide the necessary care that individuals who are experiencing withdrawal from stimulants need.

How long does drug detox last?

The duration of drug detox varies depending on the severity of withdrawal symptoms that an individual experiences and will continue until a patient is both psychologically and physically stable.

Sometimes medications including antidepressants will be prescribed, especially if there are co-occurring mental health issues. Finding the right dosage of these medications can assist an individual in preparing for the process of working through other issues that might come in the way of sustained recovery.

There are several factors that can determine the duration of drug detox including:

  • An individual’s age
  • State of health
  • Duration of drug abuse
  • Type of drug that was abused
  • Any deficiencies in vitamins or minerals
  • Level of hydration

Drug detox medications

Medications can be extremely effective tools during drug detox. In many cases, medications are able to mitigate withdrawal symptoms, address chemical changes in the brain, and help with cravings.

However, all medications have side effects, which can range from mild to severe. Individuals need to be aware of the most common medications that are administered during drug detox and the side effects associated with them.

The following is a list of medications that are commonly used during drug detox:


The number of clients receiving methadone on the survey reference date increased from about 227,000 in 2003 to more than 306,000 in 2011. Almost one-fourth of patients addicted to opioids receive methadone maintenance.

  • Used to treat opiate addiction
  • Highly restricted and must be taken under the supervision of a licensed medical professional when prescribed for treatment.
  • Daily doses are administered at methadone clinics
  • Doses of methadone that individuals are allowed to take at home may be prescribed in later phases to avoid having to come into a methadone clinic

Advantages of methadone:

  • Reduces cravings for opioids
  • Reduces withdrawal symptoms
  • Can last anywhere from 24 to 36 hours per dose

Drawbacks of methadone:

  • High risk of diversion and abuse
  • Side effects including vomiting, nausea, excessive sweating, constipation and itchy skin
  • Potential for physical and psychological dependence


Buprenorphine usually either administered on its own or in a combination with naloxone to make Suboxone. Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist that has been approved for use in treating opioid dependence. Buprenorphine is the first medication to treat opioid dependency that’s allowed to be prescribed or dispensed in a physician’s office, which significantly increases treatment access.

Advantages of buprenorphine:

  • Available by a physician in places like community hospitals, health departments, doctors offices and correctional facilities
  • Decreases cravings
  • Can reduce withdrawal symptoms
  • Effects plateau at a certain dosage so that overdose and abuse can be prevented

Drawbacks of buprenorphine:

  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Fever
  • Potential for diversion and abuse


Naltrexone comes in a pill form or as an injectable and is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat opioid use disorders and alcohol use disorders. Unlike methadone and buprenorphine, which activate opioid receptors in the body, naltrexone blocks the opioid receptors and has been shown to reduce cravings. Also, there isn’t any potential for abuse or diversion with naltrexone.

Advantages of naltrexone:

  • Extended release injection can last for up to a month
  • It is not addictive and doesn’t react adversely to alcohol
  • Long-term therapy that lasts longer than three months has been shown to be most effective

Disadvantages of naltrexone:

  • Upset stomach
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Anxiety
  • Pain in muscles or joints
  • Allergic pneumonia
  • Individuals are required to undergo detox from opioids for 7 to 10 days before the extended release form of naltrexone is administered


Disulfiram is used to treat chronic alcohol abuse and is most effective for people who have already undergone detox or are in an early stage of abstaining from alcohol. It’s offered in a tablet, which is taken once a day and should never be taken while intoxicated.

Advantages of disulfiram:

  • Discourages drinking
  • Can be a successful tool for motivated patients
  • Can be used before entering situations that might trigger cravings

Disadvantages of disulfiram:

  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Chest pains
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Potential for severe side effects including liver damage and psychosis if alcohol is ingested while on the drug


Acamprosate was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for post-withdrawal maintenance for alcohol abstinence. It is believed that acamprosate helps to modulate and normalize brain activity in order to reduce symptoms of post acute withdrawal

Advantages of acamprosate:

  • Helps normalize brain activity
  • Can lower cravings for alcohol
  • Can be taken by patients with liver damage
  • No potential for abuse or dependence

Disadvantages of acamprosate:

  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Muscle weakness
  • Nausea
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Suicide risk

Methods of drug detox

There are several commonly used methods of drug detox including “cold turkey,” a short-term medicated drug detox program and a longer-term medication-assisted drug detox.

Drug detox is not a one-size-fits-all proposition; each individual must be treated uniquely by a healthcare professional. Variables including the duration of an individual’s substance use disorder and its severity must be ascertained by a physician or other medical professional when determining the best course for detoxification.

Those who choose to go cold turkey risk experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms without any help from medication to mitigate the symptoms’ severity. Withdrawal from some drugs can be quite intense and last for an extended period of time, sometimes weeks at a stretch. For other drugs, quitting cold turkey is not as difficult.

Individuals who enter medical detox are barred from using any and all non-prescribed substances, including alcohol. The patient may be given short-term medication to help them along with the detoxification process, however. For example, if a patient was experiencing insomnia while going through drug detox, they may be prescribed sleep medication. Someone who is experiencing nausea may be prescribed a drug to decrease this withdrawal symptom. Another advantage of a medical detox is that patients are constantly monitored by medical professionals whose primary function is to ensure that a patient is comfortable during the detoxification phase.

Longer-term medication-assisted drug detoxification is common for individuals who may have an opioid-related substance use disorder. For example, a patient may be put on a regimen of buprenorphine, or a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone (Suboxone) for months at a time in order to mitigate withdrawal symptoms.

Drug Detox: The first step toward recovery

Although drug detox is the first step on the road to recovery, it is not necessarily a cure-all. During the detoxification process, the individual is purged of the harmful toxins that are present in drugs. However, once the drugs are out of an individual’s system there are many issues that they still need to address including the psychological addiction, and potentially any co-occurring mental health disorders that they may have been self-medicating.

Therapy can be an effective tool during the recovery process following detoxification. Here are a few examples of addiction therapy that have shown to help individuals in recovery:

  • Personal Therapy: Help is provided through one-on-one sessions with a qualified therapist who is experienced in dealing with mental health disorders including anxiety, bipolar disorder and depression
  • Family Therapy: Sometimes a group session with members of an individual’s family can help to more effectively address and treat problems that may be occurring at home.
  • Relapse Prevention: Relapse prevention programs typically involve constructing a plan to identify triggers and avoid the potential for a relapse.
  • Education: Knowledge is power. An education program that identifies the harm that drugs and alcohol can cause helps an individual realize the self-inflicted harm they caused and provide them with enough information to avoid self-destructive behavior in the future.

Enrolling in rehab after drug detox

A comprehensive, personalized drug rehab program is an essential component of recovery. Once a patient completes drug detox they still need to be monitored, assessed and aided by healthcare professionals in a controlled setting such as a psychiatrist’s office, inpatient addiction treatment center or outpatient program.

Here are some of the benefits of rehab after detox:

  • Personalized treatment plans: High-quality drug rehab facilities are skilled at creating personalized treatment plans tailored to an individual’s needs. These facilities typically evaluate an individual and then customize a recovery plan that is well-suited for that specific individual.
  • Psychiatric assistance: There are many instances where someone who is dealing with a substance use disorder is also dealing with a co-occurring mental health issue such as anxiety or bipolar disorder. An effective psychiatric program will address mental health issues to help a patient achieve sustainable recovery.
  • Maintenance of medication: Medication such as suboxone or naltrexone can help individuals stay on track and avoid a relapse. Many high-quality drug rehabilitation centers offer medication maintenance programs to ensure that a patient doesn’t fall back into bad habits.
  • Group counseling: Group sessions are often moderated by a case manager or group facilitator and focus on sharing experiences with peers and receiving support from people who may have shared similar experiences with substance use disorders.
  • Classes on drug education: Educational classes on drug abuse help patients to know more about the effects of certain drugs and how they can harm the body both in the short run and over a longer duration of time.

Find the best drug detox center for you or a loved one

Now that you know about the various types of drug detox that are available and what to expect, the next step is to find a drug detox program that is right for you. We have a team of drug detox specialists who are trained in assessing an individual’s requirements and can help you find a program that is best-suited for your needs. Call (877) 262-6566 now to speak to one of our drug detox specialists and start on the road to recovery!


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