Drug and alcohol detox can be an important first step toward recovery and healing for people with substance use disorders.

The process of ending substance use can be very challenging. When you quit or taper off a substance you’ve developed a dependency for, your body typically begins to go through changes. You may also experience challenges related to triggers to use again.

This is known as the withdrawal and detoxification process, commonly called “detox.“ During this time, your body starts to rid itself of the toxins that have built up in your system over the course of using substances.

Detoxing can take time and may require additional support from your doctor and loved ones. However, it can be a crucial first step in the journey to recovery and healing.

The detoxification process occurs when your body begins to eliminate toxins or other substances that you have developed a dependency on.

Your body can become used to having substances present in your system and may react strongly or cause you to feel pain when they are removed. This can be a symptom of a substance use disorder and withdrawal.

The length of detox generally depends on the substances, since each substance leaves your system at a different rate.

If you have a longer history of substance use, the detox process can potentially be very harmful if you detox too quickly or the withdrawal symptoms become too severe.

Possibly the most important benefit of detoxing can be supporting your body in healing from the effects of dependency.

Focusing on your physical health can be a powerful first step in recovery from substance use disorders and moving toward sober living. After successfully detoxing, you may feel better and have greater mental clarity to address the psychological issues related to substance use disorder.

Assisted detox programs

An assisted detox program can provide a safe space for your body to rid itself of substances while also helping you build your ongoing treatment plan.

A 2011 study found that combining an effective detox program with quality outpatient treatments could lead to significantly improved outcomes for some participants.

A drug or alcohol detox can be very challenging. Attempting a major detox on your own is not typically recommended as a safe practice.

For example, some people with a history of alcohol use disorder (AUD) can experience delirium tremens (DTs) within the first few days of detox. Some symptoms of DTs, like psychosis or seizures, may be severe and require medical attention.

If you are going through the detox process or are planning to, you may want to consider contacting a doctor for a medically supported detox with a trained professional.

Your doctor can assess your individual needs based on your substance use and personal medical history to create an individualized detox plan that works best for you. They can also monitor you and your withdrawal symptoms around the clock and offer assistance.

If you only consume a substance occasionally, you can expect to see little to no withdrawal symptoms upon quitting. However, if you consume substances regularly, you may feel initial withdrawal symptoms within a few hours of quitting.

Within the first 6 to 24 hours, you may experience:

After a full 24 hours, more severe symptoms may occur as well, like seizures or delirium tremens in the case of alcohol use disorder.

In the following 24 to 72 hours after your last use, you may experience:

  • fever
  • confusion
  • irregular heart rate
  • high blood pressure

After 48 to 96 hours, symptoms could include:

  • agitation
  • fever
  • seizures
  • hallucinations

Exact timelines and symptoms can depend on the individual and their previous substance use. Symptoms typically peak around the 72-hour mark and start to reduce in severity after approximately 5 to 7 days.

There are several options for going through the detox process from substances.

Detoxing on your own without medical support can sometimes be dangerous. Talking over possible strategies and approaches to detoxing with your doctor can be an important first step in recovery.

Medical detox

Medical detox takes place at a detox facility, so you can be closely supervised and monitored by your doctor. No matter the substance, medical detox is the most recommended and widely used treatment for substance use disorder with dependency.

In addition to medical supervision and support in managing symptoms, your care team may also help you find ways to continue treatment outside the facility.

Gradual tapering

Gradual substance tapering is a term used for the process of slowly decreasing the amount of a substance over a specific period of time.

The process can be effective but takes time and patience, and medical supervision is often recommended. It is typically helpful for a doctor to track how your body adjusts to the gradual change until the substance can be safely removed completely from your system.

Detox at home

Although it is possible to detox at home, it is not generally recommended.

During detox, you can experience severe withdrawal symptoms that require medical attention, like becoming dehydrated. Without immediate access to a doctor, you may be putting yourself at risk.

Substances may also be more easily accessed at home than at a facility, so you may have a greater risk of using again with home detox.

“Cold turkey“

“Cold turkey“ is a term used to describe the decision to abruptly stop using a substance.

This may seem like the easiest and cheapest way to detox, but quitting cold turkey can have serious health risks. Some substances are too strong to stop cold turkey without supportive medication.

With medication-assisted treatment, certain prescriptions are given to assist with recovery and help you cope with the symptoms of detox.

Alcohol withdrawal medications

Medications to help manage alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Phenobarbital (a barbiturate): a sedative given to reduce anxiety or treat a seizure
  • Diazepam (Valium): decreases anxiety, nausea, headaches, insomnia, and high blood pressure
  • Chlordiazepoxide (Librium): similar to diazepam, it also helps lower symptoms of anxiety, headaches, and seizures
  • Lorazepam (Ativan): helps alleviate withdrawal symptoms like seizures, panic attacks, vomiting, and anxiety
  • Clonidine: a drug that affects the cardiovascular system by lowering blood pressure and heart rate

Drug withdrawal medications

Medications that regulate drug withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Hydroxyzine: assists with detox from opioids and helps lessen effects like anxiety and insomnia
  • Methadone: often used in taper detoxes and designed to lessen the physical effects and cravings of opioid drugs or heroin
  • Buprenorphine: uses the same brain receptors as opioids without providing the feeling of euphoria when taken to help reduce discomfort
  • Narcan: flushes the drugs out of your system immediately
  • Naltrexone: helps with preventing substance use once detoxing is complete

Other medications given during detox can help with:

  • sleep
  • managing cravings
  • controlling nausea and vomiting

Completing a full detox is often the toughest step in any journey through substance use recovery.

Next, you may want to consider working with a doctor and therapist to design an ongoing treatment plan. It may also be beneficial to create a support system of loved ones you trust to help you with your treatment plan.

Participating in support groups for people with substance use disorders can also provide great opportunities for meeting new people and sharing with others who have had similar experiences.

The process of detoxing can be stressful and even painful, especially for those with a long history of substance use disorder. However, detoxing is achievable, and working with doctors can help you through the toughest parts.

Detoxing by yourself can sometimes be dangerous and is not generally recommended. Inpatient programs are the most commonly used facilities for medically assisted detox.

Focusing on your physical wellness through detoxing can prepare you to take the next steps in recovery from substance use disorder. These next steps can include:

  • working with a therapist and doctor to create a treatment plan that’s right for you
  • assembling a support system of loved ones
  • joining support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous

Substance use disorders can be a lifelong challenge. But the more support you have around you, the better you can manage your symptoms and triggers.

Your detox journey is not a race. Taking recovery one step at a time is often the best approach for long-term success.