How Does Drug Detox Work?

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on October 11, 2021

Drug detox works by helping a person safely stop abusing drugs and alcohol. Drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms range from uncomfortable to life-threatening, but medically supervised detox programs can help.

How Do Detox Programs Work?

Detox is an important part of the recovery process for individuals struggling with addiction.

When a person is dependent on a substance, they will experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop abusing the substance.

Without some kind of guidance or assistance, many individuals who are addicted to drugs or alcohol are unable to navigate the symptoms of withdrawal.

Detox can help lay the groundwork for continued sobriety by addressing the physical withdrawal symptoms of addiction, so the emotional and psychological aspects can be tackled after in a rehab program.

Learn more about drug and alcohol detox

Defining Detox

The simple definition of detoxification (detox) is the process the body goes through to get rid of an unwanted substance.

Most people refer to the beginning stage of substance abuse treatment programs as detox.

During detox in a medically supervised detoxification program, a person may be given medications and supplements to ease the intense withdrawal symptoms to help prevent relapse.

How Home Detox Works

Detoxing from home is high-risk. Individuals stopping alcohol or drug use from home, and without assistance, may experience severe side effects, like seizures.

In order to avoid severe complications, attending an inpatient or outpatient detox program is strongly recommended.

Inpatient detox allows for around-the-clock care, where a person can be monitored and withdrawal symptoms can be managed with medication, supplements, and more.

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Expectations Of A Medically Supervised Detox

Detox is an individualized process, which is why it is important to seek professional assistance from an addiction treatment facility that is qualified to treat drug or alcohol withdrawal.

Even with treatment plans being highly individualized, there are some standard steps, such as:


The first step of medically supervised detox is evaluation and assessment. The treatment team will evaluate and run tests for physical and mental health.

Drug tests will be administered, and a thorough patient history will be gathered.

All of this data helps to develop a substance abuse treatment plan.


Withdrawal is what happens during detox to a person who is coming off drugs or alcohol.

The severity of withdrawal symptoms depends on a variety of factors, such as the substance being abused, method of abuse, how often, and how much of the substance is being abused.

That said, there are a wide variety of withdrawal symptoms a person can experience, both physically and mentally.

Psychological withdrawal symptoms:

  • unpleasant dreams
  • not being able to sleep
  • concentration issues
  • confusion
  • irritability
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • severe mood swings
  • easily agitated
  • intense cravings
  • paranoia

Physical withdrawal symptoms:

  • sweating
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • runny nose
  • diarrhea
  • involuntary shaking
  • increased blood pressure
  • elevated heart rate
  • high body temperature
  • headaches
  • extreme tiredness (exhaustion)
  • muscle spasms
  • deep pain in muscles and bone

Seizures, hallucination, and delirium are the most severe of all the withdrawal symptoms and can result in death if not appropriately treated during detox.

Supplements And Medications

Unfortunately, there is no “one-size-fits-all” medication for people experiencing withdrawal from drugs and alcohol.

There are, however, a number of prescription and over-the-counter medications and supplements that can help ease some of the discomfort associated with withdrawal from substance abuse.

24-Hour Care

Having a fully staffed, around-the-clock detoxification clinic allows medical staff to ensure each person is as stable as possible throughout withdrawal from drugs and alcohol.

During this time, staff can work with clients to help them understand what will happen during the detox and treatment processes.

How Detox Helps You Manage Withdrawal Symptoms

Medically supervised detox can help keep you safe from the life-threatening side effects of withdrawal and ease some of the uncomfortable effects, but it does not eliminate all of them.

Some of the reported symptoms of withdrawal during detox include:

  • mood swings
  • body discomfort
  • sleeping issues
  • nausea
  • nervousness
  • concentration problems

Length Of Detox

The length of detox is an average of seven to 10 days, but can vary depending on:

  • mental function and physical ability
  • amount of the substance being abused
  • intensity of withdrawal

Each detox experience may be different for each person, every time. This is why it is important to work with medical professionals to develop an individualized treatment plan.

How Does Detox During Pregnancy Work?

Struggling with addiction while pregnant is a complicated situation. On one hand, addictive substances can cross the placenta and cause birth defects, or worse.

On the other, quitting a substance immediately can result in such a shock to the fetus, that it can cause distress or miscarriage.

Attending a medically supervised detox is strongly recommended for those who are pregnant and have a substance abuse problem.

Does Rapid Detox Work?

Rapid detox is a process that attempts to remove addictive substances while avoiding the experience of withdrawal. Rapid detox is dangerous and can be life-threatening.

Originally designed for people struggling with opioid addiction, rapid detox requires a person to be put under anesthesia and remain sedated while other medications are administered in place of the drugs being abused.

Rapid detox can cost between $6,000 and $10,000, is usually not covered by insurance, and takes about three days.

In addition, rapid detox can result in heart attack, aspiration, choking, and death. Many also report side effects similar to withdrawal.

Ultra-rapid detox is a procedure similar to rapid detox, but it only takes a couple of hours. The cost and death rates of this method are significantly higher.

Locating A Drug Detox Program

To find information regarding substance abuse treatment options, including medical detox, reach out to our helpline today.

We are currently available to answer questions for you or your loved one regarding addiction recovery.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on October 11, 2021

Canton, Massachusetts

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Plymouth, Massachusetts

Ohio Recovery Center


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