Drug Detox: What Is Substance Detoxification?

Last Updated: June 3, 2020

Drug addiction is more than substance dependency, it is a multilayered psychosocial phenomenon, and that is why the drug detox process is equally complex. A detoxification program will address the physical side of addiction, but the individual should be aware that it can take months until the brain will be able to return to the pre-addiction state.

What Is Drug Detoxification?

Through detoxification or detox from drugs, alcohol or drug concentration in the body is reduced and finally eliminated, and the addictive substance is removed from the body. The procedure can be performed in an outpatient drug detox clinic or an inpatient setting, but the second option is more efficient. Some people choose to do a home detox with drug detox drinks and other products and methods found on the internet, doing more harm than good.

A complete detox process can last up to 7 days. There is also the rapid drug detox procedure, but it comes with an increased risk of medical complications and even death.

Why Shall One Need Detoxification?

Drug detoxification is the first step for the treatment of addiction. Addiction or dependency is the state when the body has become accustomed to consistently elevated levels of a particular substance making the person feel they are functioning normally only when they are taking the drug. When that drug is stopped, the individual who has developed an addiction will start experiencing withdrawal symptoms, which are both uncomfortable and dangerous if no treatment is applied.

Through drug and alcohol detox, the individual manages to go through this process is a safer and more comfortable way, under the guidance of specialists, in a medical setting.

Drugs That Require Detoxification

There are various types of drugs that people can become addicted to, and some of them are harder to stop than others.

Here are some of the ones that require detox:


The side effects of the detoxification process from stimulants, such as amphetamine and cocaine, are very uncomfortable and can last for weeks after drug cessation. The symptoms vary in intensity and get stronger towards the end of the withdrawal period. The individual might also feel depressed, severe emotional, and physical discomfort, and experience a crash leaving them with no energy. During the detox program, the patient will be given benzodiazepines to help with the withdrawal symptoms.


Benzodiazepines are other drugs with serious withdrawal side effects such as anxiety, irritability, and nausea, among others. That is why benzodiazepines detox is based either on gradually decreasing the amount of drugs, or switching to other types of benzos, or a phenobarbital substitute.

patient talking to doctor about detox

Heroin and Opiates

Withdrawal from opioids sets in about 12 hours after the last drug intake, and it’s at its worst in about day three. Opiate detox treats trembling, nausea, cramping, trouble breathing, and salivation, among others. With medical detox, the patient slowly weans off the drugs thanks to medication based on buprenorphine and methadone.


Some of the withdrawal symptoms of the detox from alcohol include sweating, anxiety, hallucinations, and depression, which can persist for days or weeks. According to NIDA, detox from alcohol is among the most dangerous types of detoxification, posing the threat of delirium tremens and seizures. Medical alcohol detoxification is based on several drugs such as Naltrexone, Acamprosate, and Disulfiram.

Why Is Drug Detox Important?

Drug detox in detox facilities is the first step in the treatment of addiction. Even after the alcohol and drugs have been stopped, they remain in the system for several days or even weeks, causing withdrawal symptoms. These can often be dangerous, causing a stroke, seizure, or worse.

Types of Substance Detox

Clinics offer various addiction treatment strategies depending on the individual’s needs, the drug abused, the patient’s health, and the period of addiction.

There are two main types of detoxification:

Social or Non-Medical Detox

Social detox is a non-medical type of treatment, and it implies the abrupt stop of the drug use or going cold turkey but under the supervision and care of professionals. The patient is offered psychological and emotional support during the withdrawal process, and no medication is given to manage the symptoms or possible complications.

patient rejecting to take medications

This method is efficient, but it also comes with some challenges. The biggest one is the possibility of an unpleasant withdrawal process, as the patient has to endure all the withdrawal symptoms, some of which can be quite severe. That is why many patients relapse in an attempt to get rid of the unpleasant symptoms and cravings. This method is usually offered by inpatient detox centers.

Medical Detox

As the name suggests, during the medical detox for drugs, the patient receives medical treatment to prevent or help cope with the withdrawal symptoms and their complications.  Medical detox or medication-assisted treatment is a crucial part of the process of drug addiction treatment. The purpose of the medications used is to decrease cravings, nausea, headaches, insomnia, depression, and many other side effects of drug withdrawal. Sometimes IV detox drips are also used in medical settings to restore the chemical balance in the body.

Rapid and Ultra Rapid Detox

Scientists do not approve this method and, the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews has issued a warning regarding the safety of this method and its life-threatening risks. Despite this, there are still many drug detox facilities that perform it. During the fast drug detox, the patient is placed under anesthesia and given medication to start the withdrawal process. The purpose is to keep the patient under anesthesia until the withdrawal symptoms wear off.

What To Expect During Drug Detox

The medical detox program is done under the care and supervision of mental health specialists and medical professionals. The scope of this method is to increase the patient’s comfort and safety levels and to prevent possible complications during the withdrawal process. Medication is administered to reduce severe cravings and to ease the side effects.

The social detox is a short-term program, with non-medical strategy, for patients who are addicted to substances that can be stopped at once, not gradually as in medical detox. This method relies on hands-on treatment approaches, such as professional support during the detox period and peer encouragement.

group of people talking to a doctor

Side Effects of Drug Detox

Although the purpose of detox is to limit or prevent withdrawal symptoms, some of them cannot be avoided.

Some of the typical adverse reactions to substance detox include:

  • Nausea
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mood swings
  • Body discomfort
  • Tremors and shakes
  • Racing heart
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Panic attacks

Dangers of Improper Substance Detox

Depending on the type of drug used, the person’s medical history, and the chronicity of the abuse, improper detox can lead to uncomfortable and even fatal adverse effects.

Some people choose at-home drug detox, with kits bought on the internet. There are also detox teas and the Thomas Recipe for opiate withdrawal. Some people even try detoxification pills. What they do not know is that this can result in serious complications. Withdrawal can cause seizures, delirium, and hallucinations, all requiring immediate medical management.

Next Steps After Detoxification

Detox is only the first step in addiction treatment. Once the body is clean from drugs, the patient has to continue the rest of the rehab treatment to overcome both the physical and psychological dependence.


To be able to remain sober for the months and years to come, the patient also has to address the behaviors, feelings, and thoughts that have pushed them towards substance abuse, and this is the purpose of the next step in recovery: rehabilitation.

The patient can choose among inpatient, outpatient, or partial hospitalization rehab, depending on the level of care needed after the detox program.

Rehab therapy is an integral part of the success of the entire program. Through extensive therapy and counseling, the patient can address the issues that have led to the addiction.

female patient talking to an addiction counselor

There are various types of counseling and therapy:

  • Individual counseling
  • Group counseling
  • Family therapy
  • Experiential therapy (this is usually offered at holistic detox centers)


Even after the initial rehab program is completed, the recovery process is not over. Recovery will last for the rest of the patient’s life. A counselor will talk to the patient and create a plan for aftercare. Many patients continue to attend therapy sessions regularly post-rehab, and some of them even accept scheduled drug testing to be kept accountable for their sobriety.

How To Choose The Right Detoxification Option

Anyone who wants to enter a detox program but does not know what to choose should first ask their therapist or physician for recommendations of the best addiction treatment centers. Then the person should do their research on the internet to find out more about that clinic or center. One should learn about their detox programs, if they are accredited, read some reviews of the previous patients and even get in touch with the facility and ask some specific questions regarding their detox program. There are also many free detox centers that are state-funded.

Page Sources

  1. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2006. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 45.). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64115/
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Medical detoxification. 2016. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/teaching-packets/understanding-drug-abuse-addiction/section-iii/7-medical-detoxification.
  3. Gowing L, Ali R, White J. Opioid antagonists under heavy sedation or anaesthesia for opioid withdrawal. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2006. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=16625552

Published on: December 15th, 2016

Updated on: June 3rd, 2020


Leave a comment

  • Lucy
    I’m looking for free detox for friend of mine who has no family to support financially I been helping this on and off three years and I’m my self in debt beacause of I helped this person so much and I don’t wanna see him dying his a good soul and again I found him on the street in rain all night my heart melted so picked him and put him in the hotel foe 3 days but tomorrow his checking out and he needs detox he will loose his job soon too if he doesn’t come out and he doesn’t have insurance too so if anyone can help me I bag of you by the way my name is Lucy and I’m so sad for him
    • Libby Davis
      (888)-459-5511 that is the number for a free hotline for help call them an they will help you find a free treatment centers and detox centers
  • Starla Taylor
    I am looking for a state funded inpatient drug rehab for myself.Im a iv meth user in desperate need of help..
    • Robin Pharr
      Bethel Colony of Mercy, Lenior NC
  • Charlene Deluca
    My son is addicted to oxycontin and need free assistance in helping him detox. He’s been smoking the pills for 8 months and just broke down and want to get help
    • Robyn Pharr
      Bethel Colony of Mercy – Lenior, NC – a 65 day in patient facility that has a LOW intake fee and does wonders for the body and soul. Please look them up.