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How Does Alcohol and Drug Detox Work? How Long Does It Take?



Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

Detoxification, or detox, is the process by which various kinds of toxins leave the body. For individuals struggling with substance abuse, detox refers to the period of time in which their body metabolizes drugs and alcohol. Once these substances are fully processed by the body, individuals will no longer have alcohol or drugs in their bloodstream. This means that detox is necessary before seeking addiction treatment.

Detox is only the beginning stage for someone who is trying to get control of an addiction. While drugs and alcohol will leave the body within a few days, the withdrawal symptoms someone experiences may last longer, sometimes even for several months, depending on the individual and the severity of their addiction.

Types of Detox Programs

There are options when choosing to detox from drugs or alcohol. For example, individuals may choose a detox program associated with a treatment center or a detox program within a hospital or medical facility. Either way, they should never detox alone. This is because the detox process can be dangerous, so medical supervision is a necessity.

Typically, detox programs last anywhere from three to nine days but may last longer depending on the severity of an individual’s addiction.

Medically supervised detox programs employ healthcare professionals to manage any withdrawal symptoms an individual may experience. This type of detox occurs in a controlled facility where medical staff can monitor and medicate the individual as needed to keep them as comfortable and safe as possible.

Some individuals seek out a medically supervised detox program through a treatment program. This is convenient because they can enroll immediately into addiction treatment upon completing detox. That reduces the likelihood they will decide not to attend treatment after completing detox.

In other cases, individuals may seek to detox at a hospital or another medical facility. In this case, the physicians responsible for their care will recommend an appropriate addiction treatment program to take the next step. It is usually left up to the individual to pursue that treatment option, however.

Common Withdrawal Symptoms

What a person experiences during detox will depend on the individual and the substance they have been misusing. Additionally, the severity of their addiction will impact their withdrawal symptoms. Some common issues that individuals detoxing from drugs or alcohol may experience include:

  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Delirium tremens (DTs), a life-threatening issue that causes restlessness, confusion, fever, hallucinations, and seizures
  • Depression
  • Hallucinations
  • Problems sleeping
  • Shakiness, especially in the hands
  • Unstable changes in blood pressure and heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Frequent yawning
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Diarrhea
  • Hot and cold flashes
  • Runny nose
  • Goosebumps
  • Muscle cramps/body aches
  • Panic
  • Seizures
  • Mood swings
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Irritation
  • Psychotic episodes
  • Thoughts of self-harm
  • Ongoing tiredness or lethargy

Alcohol Detox Timeline

Detox happens in three stages: evaluation, stabilization, and seeking additional treatment.

For someone with an alcohol addiction, withdrawal symptoms will begin to appear within six hours after their last drink. For heavy drinkers, they could also experience a seizure at this point. Between 12 and 24 hours into detox, an individual may experience hallucinations. Between one and two days into detox for alcohol, symptoms like headache or stomach upset are common. For someone with a milder addiction, their symptoms may subside within several days.

Anyone with a more serious addiction to alcohol may experience delirium tremens between 48 and 72 hours into detox. Around 72 hours is often the peak severity of withdrawal symptoms for someone with alcohol use disorder. After four to five days, they should begin to notice a decrease in symptoms. For some, moderate symptoms may persist for up to a month.

Drug Detox Timeline

Detox for drug addiction will vary, depending on the drug that has been abused.

  • Some short-acting opioids, such as certain painkillers and heroin, cause withdrawal symptoms within eight to 24 hours, with symptoms peaking after four to 10 days.
  • Methadone and other longer-acting opioids may not cause withdrawal symptoms until two to four days into detox and may fade around 10 days.
  • Withdrawal symptoms from any benzodiazepine drug, such as Xanax, Valium, and Ativan, usually occur within one to four days and peak after about two weeks.

Without medical treatment, some people may experience withdrawal symptoms for months or even years.

Anyone with a substance abuse or drinking problem can benefit from a detox program, but it’s important to remember that detox is only the beginning of recovery from addiction. Additional treatment and support are needed to achieve long-lasting sobriety. That’s why it’s so important to seek treatment immediately after completing detox.

Building on a belief that spiritual development and healthy recovery can bring inner peace to clients overcoming addiction and substance abuse, Into Action Recovery Centers takes a people-centered approach to addiction treatment. We’re conveniently located in Houston, Texas, and our program is led by experienced master’s level counselors and medical professionals who specialize in personalized detox and treatment for drug and alcohol abuse.

Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

Dr. Saeed is a psychiatry specialist with over 40 years of experience in the medical field. He received training in General Psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he was selected as the Medical Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. He currently serves as the medical director at Into Action Recovery Centers. Full Bio

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