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Guide to Drug Detox: What to Expect During the Process

We often think of recovering from drug addiction as a mental process. In many ways it is; building the skills and will to resist the temptation drugs have for you is certainly a part of most addiction recovery programs. However, any person struggling through addiction knows there is more to it than that. One of the hardest parts of kicking a drug habit comes early and is almost entirely physical: detoxing.

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Detox is the first part of your recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. Rather than continued substance abuse, you make a different choice. 

Several types of drug detox exist, including at-home and in-person versions. Depending on your drug abuse history, one may be safer for you than another. 

Key Information About Drug Detox

Key Facts

  • Several types of detox programs exist. Choosing the right one is important for your safety and long-term recovery.
  • The length of your detox program depends on several factors, including your drug of choice and the amount you take. 
  • Detox is an important part of the recovery process. 

What Is Drug Detoxification?

As your drug or alcohol abuse deepens, you may feel sick between doses. For many people, this sickness keeps them using, even when they want to quit. Drug detoxification involves ending this cycle of self-medication and working toward sobriety instead. 

Sickness between doses of drugs is called withdrawal. The following symptoms are common in people who abuse these drugs:[1]

  • Opioids: Flu-like symptoms may last between four and 20 days. 
  • Benzodiazepines: Poor mental health, including anxiety and insomnia, can last two to eight weeks or even longer in some cases. 
  • Stimulants: Agitation, depression, and sedation can last for up to five days. 
  • Alcohol: Symptoms like anxiety and insomnia are common, but some people develop life-threatening seizures. Symptoms last between two and 10 days. 
  • Cannabis: Poor mental health, accompanied by gastrointestinal upset and night sweats, lasts between seven and 14 days. 

Symptom severity can vary by the type of drug used, the length of drug abuse, and more. 

The goal of detox is to move past these symptoms without relapsing to drugs. It’s considered the first step in the addiction recovery process. 

Types of Drug Detox 

Several different detox options exist. Understanding what they are can help you make a smart decision for your future. 

Types of drug detox to choose from include the following:[2,3]

  • Inpatient medical detox: Medical detox involves using medications, fluids, and other therapies to clear toxins from someone dependent on drugs or alcohol. For people addicted to dangerous drugs like alcohol and opioids, this is the safest way to get sober. In an inpatient program, you are surrounded by staff around the clock, as your detox services will be medically managed and monitored.
  • Outpatient medical detox: Just like inpatient programs, an outpatient medical program is designed by a doctor, but you start using the medication at home. For some people addicted to drugs like opioids, a program like this could be a good option, as the therapies are made for at-home use. 
  • Tapering: In a program like this, you take a smaller dose of the addictive substance as directed by your doctor. Your brain adjusts to sobriety slowly. This approach could be useful for people addicted to drugs like benzodiazepines. Your body gradually adjusts to the lack of drugs in your body.
  • Faster options: In so-called “rapid detox” programs, doctors put their patients under anesthesia, provide medications to inactivate drugs, and wait for the body to adjust. This approach has killed patients, and it’s not considered safe.

Understanding the Detox Process Stages

  • Assessment and evaluation: Teams determine which substances you’re using, how much you take, and your treatment history. 
  • Preparing to enter treatment: Treatment professionals develop your drug detox plan and share it with you. If you agree, treatment begins. 
  • Stabilization: Your treatment program begins. You’re enrolled in the program, and medications start. 
  • Medical supervision: Your care team monitors your response to the program and adjusts your dose as needed. 
  • Aftercare: When your program is complete, you’re transferred to a drug rehab program to learn more about recovery. 

The Drug Detox Process 

Every drug detox program is different. For example, if you’re tapering your drugs, you’ll have a much different experience than someone entering a traditional inpatient detox program. You should understand exactly how your program will work before you get started. 

A classic inpatient drug detox program uses the following steps:[1]

  1. Assessment: You’ll work with medical teams, counselors, treatment planners, and more to discuss your addiction and treatment history. Your administrators may also perform screening tests to understand which drugs you’ve used and how much you took.
  2. Preparation: At the end of your assessment, the team will provide you with a detailed plan for your care. You’ll understand how much it will cost, how long it will take, and so much more. With that information, you can decide if the program is right for you. 
  3. Stabilization. You enter the treatment program, and the process you’ve approved begins. Sometimes, medications are administered immediately. Sometimes, you must show mild withdrawal signs before therapy begins. Your team will follow the agreed protocol carefully. 
  4. Medical supervision: Your team will monitor your symptoms and assess how well the plan is working. If you’re in severe discomfort, the medications may be adjusted. If you’re doing well, they may speed things up. 
  5. Aftercare: When you’re no longer experiencing acute withdrawal, the team prepares you to enter a drug rehab program. Here, you’ll use therapy and other tools to help you preserve your sobriety. 

In most cases, drug detox is most uncomfortable during the acute phase of withdrawal. Your symptoms are at their strongest, and your cravings for drugs can be hard to ignore. In the later stage of withdrawal, you may feel your old self returning. 

How Long Does a Detox Take?

Your treatment team should explain how long your program will take. Typically, your time frames are based on your primary drug. 

Many addictive drugs cause withdrawal syndromes that last about a month.[1] However, your program may be longer or shorter depending on factors like your underlying physical health, the presence of mental health disorders, and your response to the treatment plan. 

Can I Detox From Drugs at Home?

Some detox programs are designed for at-home administration. If you’re tapering from drugs or enrolled in outpatient care, you’ll do the work at home. But some people try to quit drugs cold turkey without a doctor’s help. This is different, and it can be dangerous and even fatal. 

Drugs like alcohol can cause life-threatening complications when people quit without help.[1] Drugs like opioids cause such severe cravings that people often relapse before they’ve finished the withdrawal process.[1]

A formal detox program supervised by a professional is the safest and most effective way to move through withdrawal from any substance. 

You can prepare for a detox program by eating healthy meals, drinking plenty of water, and taking nutritional supplements to amend any pre-existing imbalances. The most important thing to do is to enter a program as soon as you’re motivated to do so. Don’t lose your willpower when you find it. 

Boca Recovery Center has years of experience in helping people just like you quit drugs and alcohol for good. Contact us to learn why so many people choose us for this important part of your recovery. 

How to Choose a Detox Program 

Finding the right treatment partner is critical to your success. Asking questions before you enroll can ensure you find the right program for you. 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends asking the following questions:[4]

  1. Do you use science-based therapies to help your clients? Ensure that your provider will use proven methods (like medications) to help you get sober. If you have a history of opioid abuse, your team might use a medication like buprenorphine. If you have a history of alcohol abuse, benzodiazepines may be part of the protocol. Find out what’s part of the plan and why.
  2. Do you tailor your treatment programs? Your recovery is personal, and your team should craft a plan that’s just right for you.
  3. Does the program change as I change? If you’re responding well to medications, your plan could move faster. If you’re struggling, you may need a different approach. 
  4. How long will I stay in treatment? A rapid-detox process isn’t safe. Your program should last as long as you need it to.

Find out how much the program costs, and if you have insurance, determine that you’re working with a covered provider. Many facilities will handle this step for you as part of the planning process. 

How Recovery Centers Can Help 

It is not impossible to overcome withdrawal alone, but it isn’t easy. Recovery centers (also called detox centers) can be a massive help.

These sorts of programs greatly improve the chances that you make it safely through the withdrawal process without relapse. Dealing with severe withdrawal on your own reduces your chances of successfully beating an addiction.

Importantly, doctors can ensure the withdrawal process isn’t life-threatening. This is especially important for people with severe alcohol addiction, as alcohol can cause intense withdrawal symptoms.

Going through a medical detox program will be the safest and most comfortable option for most people trying to quit. You will have a team of doctors helping to keep you comfortable in a facility specifically built to help you recover from addiction.

Recovery centers also make relapsing back to drug misuse more difficult. Since you’re not in your usual environment, it is often much easier to resist the temptations that might push you to use.

Boca Recovery Center can help. We can ensure you have the tools you need to resist the urge to relapse.

Recovery After Drug Detox 

While drug detox is important and effective, it doesn’t lead to sustained abstinence.[1] People must follow up drug detox with a drug rehab program. Here, you’ll learn more about how to build and maintain a safe and sober life. 

Some people enter drug rehab programs taking no medications at all. Others use maintenance medications like buprenorphine or methadone to preserve their sobriety and keep their minds clear. 

Several types of drug rehab programs exist, including the following:[5]

  • Inpatient hospitalization: Move into a facility, and get care from medical staff around the clock. 
  • Residential treatment: Move into a treatment facility with others in recovery. Work with therapists, counselors, and other mental health professionals every day. However, doctors and nurses may not be on staff. 
  • Intensive outpatient: Live at home while working on your addiction, but visit the addiction treatment center nearly every day to get help and insights. 
  • Outpatient care: Live at home and access care for nine hours per week or less. 

It’s not uncommon for people to use multiple treatment methods.[5] You might start in an inpatient program and then transition to outpatient care as your skills improve. 

At the end of your drug detox program, your care team can help you decide which mode of treatment seems right for you. Ideally, you’ll start the program the next day. 

Drug Detox Frequently Asked Questions

We’ve compiled some of the most frequently asked questions about drug detox here. 

Why is drug detoxing hard?

As an addiction deepens, your brain and body become physically and mentally dependent on drugs. Quitting without help can mean feeling physically sick and overwhelmed with cravings. It’s very easy to relapse, and when you do, you must start the program again. 

Is a drug detox safe?

A medically managed drug detox in a reputable program is the safest way to get sober. Quitting cold turkey or using unproven methods (like rapid detox) is not. 

How much does a drug detox cost?

It depends. An at-home taper detox may cost little or nothing, while a medically supervised hospital stay could be much more expensive. Insurance will often cover some of the cost.

Will insurance help cover the cost of drug detoxing?

It depends. Most insurance programs will cover the cost of medications and therapies for addiction. You could face difficulties if you choose an out-of-network provider or an unusual treatment program. 

How does pregnancy affect a detox program?

Tell your treatment team about your pregnancy so they can choose the right approach for you and your baby. Ongoing drug addiction isn’t safe for either of you.

How is a detox handled for adolescents and younger adults?

Younger people can benefit from drug detox too, and their programs are very similar to those used by adults. Specialized care can help young people to sustain recovery.

Updated February 7, 2024
Resources
  1. Withdrawal management. Clinical guidelines for withdrawal management and treatment of drug dependence in closed settings. Published 2009. Accessed November 5, 2023.
  2. Detoxification and substance abuse treatment. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Published 2006. Accessed November 5, 2023.
  3. Deaths and severe adverse events associated with anesthesia-assisted rapid opioid detoxification. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published September 27, 2013. Accessed November 5, 2023.
  4. Seeking drug abuse treatment: Know what to ask. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published June 2013. Accessed November 5, 2023.
  5. A guide to substance abuse services for primary care clinicians. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Published 1997. Accessed November 5, 2023.
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