Everything You Need To Know About Substance Use Detox

Detox is the first step in treating substance use disorders—and can be the difference between life and death

April 25, 2024

Addiction is one of the biggest challenges facing society today. Countless people are turning to substances, including prescription medications and alcohol, to cope with stress, trauma, and symptoms of common disorders, such as depression.

There is massive stigma around addiction, whether someone is trying to quit or is still using a substance. Because of this, many people feel like failures for either using or not being able to quit on their own.

But there is hope—detox is proven to work and can be the first major step toward recovery.

Keep Reading To Learn

  • What is detox
  • How to know if you or someone you care about needs to detox
  • What happens during and after the detox process

What Is Substance Detox?

Detox is the process of removing a specific substance from your body. If your body is addicted to a substance, it has been conditioned to believe it requires it to survive.

If you start to limit use of a specific substance, you may start to develop serious withdrawal symptoms. This is one of the most common reasons people relapse quickly after they attempt to get clean and/or sober.

How Does Detox Work?

The detoxification process can take on different forms depending on the substance involved. For example, detox for opioids, benzodiazepines, and alcohol each vary in length. Depending on the substance, it can take several days or several months for the body to be rid of a substance.

In addition, the length and severity of a detoxification period can be impacted by the following:

  • What substance(s) were used and if there was more than one
  • The frequency of substance use and how much was being taken at a time
  • If the person detoxing has other co-occurring illnesses, including mental health conditions
  • The person’s medical history
  • The person’s age and gender

Establishing a detoxification program requires specific steps, and going through detox by oneself can be difficult and life-threatening.

It’s important to work with an experienced medical professional who can tailor the process to meet a person’s specific needs. Trained professionals, starting with a person’s physician, have experience helping patients work through the symptoms that accompany detox.

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Dr. Julie McCarthy talks to us about substance addiction and how to support a family member who is struggling

The Process of Detoxing From Substances

The detoxification process involves several steps. The details depend on the specific medical professional and the exact nature of the substances to which someone is addicted.

Each person will experience detox differently. In addition, each detox process is unique, even if someone has previously gone through the process.

The following steps outline the typical detox process.


The first step is for a provider to get to know the person who is seeking help. It is important for a provider to know how often someone has been using substances, the amount taken, and how long the person has been addicted to that specific substance.


The next step is for the person with substance use disorder to begin the process of slowly reducing or stopping the use of substances. It’s important to do this under a physician’s care, with a trained professional who can help with symptom reduction in a hospital or other medical setting.

Moderate the Effects

After someone stops taking a specific substance, their body must clear the remaining substance from its system.

As someone stops using drugs or alcohol, withdrawal symptoms will start to appear. Symptoms can vary depending on the type of substance involved.

One of the goals of medical detoxification is to provide support that can help someone manage symptoms. This can include IV hydration, over-the-counter medications, or even prescription medications that might help treat the symptoms and make the withdrawal process more bearable.

Monitor the Effects

As someone goes through this process, medical professionals will monitor vital signs. These include heart rate, blood pressure, oxygenation, respiratory rate, and temperature.

Taper the Treatment

Tapering means gradually reducing a person’s medication doses. Instead of abruptly stopping substances, the process will end gradually. This way, any rebound or reactive symptoms can be avoided.

If other medications are being used to support someone through the withdrawal process, these will also be tapered over the course of several hours to several days.


The last step is to conclude the detox process and set the patient up for the next phase: effective treatment.

After someone has gone through the withdrawal process and has had substances cleared from their system, it’s important they build skills to help them stay sober for the long term.

Understanding the Severity of Withdrawal Symptoms

It’s critical to understand that symptoms of withdrawal can vary from person to person. This depends on the nature of the addiction.

Some symptoms are severe enough that relapse may occur to stop them from happening. Others can be life-threatening, which is why it’s important to work with a licensed health care professional to go through detoxification.

Here are a few examples.

Alcohol Withdrawal

Symptoms may include shaking, sweating, agitation, nausea, vomiting, and anxiety. Alcohol withdrawal can lead to a rapid heart rate, tremors, disorientation, insomnia, and seizures. This withdrawal syndrome must be managed by a medical professional.

Opioid Withdrawal

Someone who is addicted to opioid medications can experience anxiety, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.

Benzodiazepine Withdrawal

Symptoms can include increased anxiety, extreme muscle tension, sleep disturbances, panic attacks, heart palpitations, profuse sweating, headaches, cravings, and hand tremors.

In certain situations, benzodiazepine withdrawal can also lead to hallucinations, seizures, psychosis, and an increased risk of suicidal ideation. These issues must be addressed by trained medical professionals.

Withdrawal symptoms can vary depending on the duration and severity of the specific addiction.

It’s critical to undergo detoxification under the supervision of medical professionals.

Addiction 101

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We’ve compiled everything you want to know about addiction into one easy-to-read guide. Learn more about substance misuse and how you or a loved one can find hope and healing on the path to recovery.

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Can’t I Just Detox at Home?

Quite simply: no. People who struggle with addiction seek help from experienced medical professionals for one reason: safety.

Withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening, especially for people with an addiction to benzodiazepines or alcohol. Medical professionals will monitor the process and keep you safe.

It’s difficult and dangerous to quit a substance “cold turkey.” You should rely on medical professionals who can assist you through withdrawal completely and safely.

If you’re dealing with other conditions, including mental health challenges, medical professionals can help you manage withdrawal according to your individual needs.

The withdrawal process can be uncomfortable—often, extremely so. No one has to go through it alone. Medical professionals may not be able to relieve all symptoms, but they can help you feel as comfortable as possible.

The bottom line: you may be risking your life if you choose to detox without medical supervision.

Once you have completed detoxification, your care team can connect you to support services for your continuing recovery from addiction.

How Do I Know Whether to Reach Out for Help for Myself or a Loved One?

It can be difficult to figure out if you, or someone you know, needs help with reducing their dependency on a substance. If someone may need help, it’s a good idea to reach out to experts to find out how best to proceed.

For example, you may want to talk to your primary care provider. Your doctor can review the topic with you in depth and can refer you to local treatment specialists, if needed.

By working together with your doctor, you can place yourself or your loved one in the best possible position for success.

Warning Signs: When Someone May Need Help With Addiction

Red flags you may want to watch for include:

  • Falling behind on work or schoolwork
  • Skipping out on personal and professional obligations
  • Making attempts to hide certain types of behavior
  • Relationship issues with family members, friends, and coworkers
  • Mood swings that fluctuate quickly between anger, sadness, and euphoria
  • Statements of concern from family members, friends, and coworkers
  • Financial difficulties that could be the result of feeding an addiction

If you or a loved one are experiencing these issues, it may be time to reach out to a professional. The sooner you act, the better you can maximize chances of making a full recovery.

Knowing the Risk of Relapse

Although addiction treatment has a high success rate, it’s still possible for people to relapse. If someone relapses, there’s no need to be ashamed or embarrassed—it is common.

It’s important for a person’s support network to respond to relapse with care and compassion. It’s also important to understand why someone may relapse. These reasons may include:

  • Returning to the same environments or challenging situations that led to addiction in the first place
  • Experiencing extreme stress when leaving addiction treatment; stress can be a major contributing factor to relapse
  • Lacking gainful employment; this makes it difficult to develop a new routine and stay sober
  • Lacking a strong support system that can help them remain sober
  • Not knowing how to deal with cravings when they leave treatment

Many people who relapse do so almost immediately after leaving the treatment process. If they relapse within the first week, it’s a sign they’re not making it through withdrawal.

Someone who relapses may need to go through detox again in order to clear substances from their body. They can then learn more about why they relapsed and how to prevent it from happening down the road.

Does Detox Actually Work?

Yes, detox for addiction treatment is proven to work. With the help of trained professionals, people can place themselves in the best position for recovery.

Experts help people make it through withdrawal symptoms and avoid potential relapses. If people move through that first week of treatment without relapsing, they are more likely to be able to maintain long-term sobriety.

The recovery process does not end just because someone makes it through detox. It’s important to address the root causes of why someone may have developed an addiction in the first place.

It’s critical for people to enroll in long-term treatment in the form of outpatient visits or support groups. A trained mental health professional can help people manage cravings that commonly develop after leaving a treatment program.

This is incredibly important, not only for helping people get sober, but to stay sober as well.

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Call us today at 978.464.2331 to learn how we can help you or a loved one who is struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol.

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Myths and Misconceptions About Detox

Several myths about detox exist.

Myth: You Can Only Enroll in Substance Detox if You’ve Tried—and Relapsed—On Your Own

Many people believe they can only go through detox if they have tried to get sober on their own and have already relapsed.

This is not the case. It’s important for people to go through detox with a trained professional. That way, they can place themselves in the best position possible to get sober—and stay sober—on the first try.

Myth: Once I’m Done With Detoxing From a Substance, I’m Cured!

Another common misconception people have about this process is that they believe they’re cured as soon as they are done with detox. This is not the case. Detox is simply the process of removing drugs or alcohol from the body and starting treatment.

The next step after detox is to learn the skills needed to protect their sobriety when they go home. That’s why long-term support is important.

Myth: Going Through Detox Will Remove All Withdrawal Symptoms

Many people believe that going through detoxification with the help of trained medical professionals will help them remove all withdrawal symptoms they might otherwise experience.

Even though medical professionals can help to avoid some of the symptoms, they will not be able to help with all of them.

It’s important for people to be ready to experience some discomfort as they go through substance detoxification. Medical professionals can use treatment tools and techniques to make this process more comfortable.

Myth: I Don’t Need Detox—or Help Doing It—I’m Strong Enough To Do It On My Own

Some people believe that going through substance detox with the help of medical professionals is somehow a sign of weakness.

This could not be further from the case. Struggling with drug or alcohol misuse is not a sign of weakness—it is instead the sign that someone is struggling with underlying issues and they are using substances to help cope.

People rarely are able to quit “cold turkey,” and it’s dangerous to even try. Withdrawal symptoms that accompany alcohol and benzodiazepine addiction can be extremely painful and life-threatening. It is critical to rely on medical professionals in these situations.

Myth: If I Relapse After Going Through Detox, I’m a Failure

Some people believe if they relapse after going through detox, they have somehow failed.

It’s important to remember that recovering from addiction is a process, with relapse often being a part of the journey.

If someone relapses, they need to reach out to medical professionals for help. People may have to go through detox again in order to get sober.

Trained professionals can help someone figure out why they relapsed. They can adjust the treatment plan to help someone remain sober on the next try.

There is Hope for Someone Struggling With Substance Use

The detox process can be difficult—but recovery is possible.

Medical professionals can help make people as comfortable as possible.

Not everyone will experience symptoms during detox. Symptom frequency and severity will depend on the nature of the addiction, how long someone has been addicted to a substance, and how much of that substance someone has been using.

It’s important to help someone get sober, which is what medical detoxification does. However, it’s also important to help someone stay sober, which can be done in a variety of ways, whether through inpatient or residential care, regular therapy, community support groups, or a combination of these.

The process can be frightening depending on its severity, but on the other side of detoxification is a second chance at living a healthy—and sober—life.

Want More Info?

Looking for even more information about substance addiction? You may find these resources helpful.

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Learn more about addiction and what you can do if you or a loved one is displaying signs of a substance use disorder.

Helpful Links

These organizations may also have useful information:

Alcoholics Anonymous
AA is an international organization of people who have had a drinking problem. They offer self-help groups, educational resources, and support for those who struggle with alcohol addiction and the path to recovery.

American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry
An academic society organization, AAAP has an interest in preventing and treating substance use disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses.

Learn to Cope
This nonprofit support network offers education, resources, peer support, and hope for parents and family members coping with a loved one addicted to opiates or other drugs.

Massachusetts Substance Use Helpline
Provides free and anonymous information and referral for alcohol and other drug abuse problems and related concerns. The helpline is committed to linking consumers with comprehensive, accurate, and current information about treatment and prevention services throughout Massachusetts.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Part of the National Institutes of Health, NIAAA supports and conducts research on the impact of alcohol use on human health and well-being.

National Institute on Drug Abuse
NIDA supports scientific research on drug use and its consequences. NIDA is part of the National Institutes of Health.

Partnership to End Drug Addiction
Partners with families, professionals, and other organizations to end addiction in the United States. They take a public health approach, rooted in science and compassion.

SMART Recovery
This abstinence-oriented, nonprofit organization for people with addictive problems offers self-empowering, free mutual support meetings focused on ideas and techniques to help an individual change their life from one that is self-destructive and unhappy to one that is constructive and satisfying.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
SAMHSA, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, leads public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation. SAMHSA works to reduce the impact of substance addiction and mental illness on America’s communities.

A comprehensive list of available 12-step programs as well as the tools to identify the most appropriate. This site has in-depth information about 12-step programs, how they work, and how to find one near you.