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Medical Detox Centers

Medical detox centers help people detox from addictive substances to treat use disorders. Such centers do this by managing withdrawal symptoms and cravings, keeping patients safe and comfortable throughout the detox process.1 Medical detox can save a life by preventing life-threatening complications that may occur if left untreated.2

In this article:

What is a Medical Detox Center?

Medical detox centers are inpatient facilities that offer 24/7 medical monitoring, care, and supervision in a hospital environment. Withdrawal symptoms can be uncomfortable, painful, and sometimes life-threatening. Thus, many people can benefit from medical supervision and care during the detox period.1

While being a supportive and instrumental stage of treatment, medically assisted detox is only the first step along the continuum of care.5 Follow-up care is essential to avoid relapse and maintain sobriety.

Research indicates you are likelier to complete detox at inpatient medical detox centers compared to outpatient detox care. This is due to the 24/7 monitoring and medical care that controls withdrawal symptoms and maximizes comfort.1

What Happens at Medical Detox?

Medical detox involves a combination of interventions to clear the body of toxins. These minimize the harm caused by the substance from which you will detox. Three essential steps comprise the detox process:2

  1. Evaluation: When you first enter a medical detox center, you are evaluated and screened for co-occurring physical and mental health conditions. You also undergo blood testing for substance levels. Your medical team evaluate your overall health and determine the level of care and treatment most appropriate for you.
  2. Stabilization: During the stabilization phase, your medical detox team will support you throughout the process so you can become medically stable and substance free. This usually involves medications that minimize withdrawal symptoms. You also may be given other supportive care, such as IV fluids and nutritional therapy.
  3. Facilitating entry into treatment: The third component of detox is facilitating your entry into addiction treatment. This stage sometimes is missed or ignored. Unfortunately, detox alone often is not enough to sustain abstinence in the long term. Counseling, support groups, and sometimes medication maintenance are needed to help maintain this long-term abstinence.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a detoxification program must include all three of these essential steps. Otherwise, the detox process is incomplete and inadequate.2

Among detoxification patients, many choose to leave treatment before their physician discharges them. Such patients tend to have higher rates of unemployment and use substances intravenously. Leaving treatment against medical advice means that you will receive inadequate drug treatment for detox.1

You can benefit from comprehensive care at medical detox centers, including initial assessment, case management, and post-detoxification follow up. This has been shown to increase enrollment in treatment programs following detox. Additionally, such comprehensive care increases employment rates and decreases arrest rates after treatment.1

Who Should Consider Medical Detox?

Anyone addicted to drugs or alcohol can benefit from medical detox, as it provides the most intensive level of detox. However, certain people may benefit from it more than others. Inpatient medical detox is recommended for people with the following:2, 3

  • Addictions to opioids, alcohol, or sedatives
  • Polysubstance addiction
  • History of delirium tremens (a serious symptom of severe alcohol withdrawal)
  • History of seizures
  • History of chronic relapse
  • Co-occurring psychiatric or medical disorders
  • Hallucinations or mental confusion
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Lack of psychosocial support at home

How Long Does Detox Last?

The detox process can vary greatly from substance to substance and from person to person. Detox periods may take longer if you are given certain withdrawal medications, but it will be more manageable and comfortable. These detox periods are complicated further by the commonly misused substances themselves, which have different detox timelines.

Alcohol Detox Timeline

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually show up within eight hours of the last drink and usually peak between 24 and 72 hours. Nonetheless, symptoms can last for weeks, especially if you use alcohol chronically or heavily.3

Opioid Detox Timeline

If you are detoxing from short-acting opioids like heroin, you may start to experience withdrawal symptoms as early as 8 to 24 hours after your last use. Withdrawal symptoms typically last 4 to 10 days.4

However, if you are detoxing from long-acting opioids like methadone, you may start experiencing detox symptoms within 12 to 48 hours after your last use. Withdrawal symptoms may last anywhere from 10 to 20 days.4

Stimulant Detox Timeline

Stimulants are drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, and amphetamines, which have a stimulating effect on the central nervous system. The detox period for stimulants typically is shorter than opiate or alcohol withdrawal. Detox symptoms may start to appear within 24 hours of last use and typically last around three to five days.4

Benzodiazepine Detox Timeline

Withdrawal from short-acting benzodiazepines like alprazolam and oxazepam usually begins within 1 to 2 days of the last dose. Symptoms of withdrawal will continue for two to four weeks or longer.4

Withdrawal from long-acting benzodiazepines like diazepam and nitrazepam typically begins within 2 to 7 days of last use. Their symptoms during withdrawal usually last two to eight weeks or longer.4

Cannabis Detox Timeline

It is a common misconception that cannabis does not produce withdrawal symptoms when people stop or reduce their use. While cannabis detox symptoms usually are mild, they still can be challenging to manage and may lead people to relapse. Symptoms may show up within 24 hours of last use and can last between one and two weeks.4

Factors That Affect the Detox Timeline

Several factors can affect your detox timeline:1, 2, 4

  • The substance you use
  • How long you were using the substance
  • How much you were using
  • Method of drug administration
  • Withdrawal medications you take to ease detox symptoms
  • Your overall mental and physical health at the time of detox
  • Individual physiology

Referral to a Drug or Alcohol Addiction Treatment Program

Detox is just the first step of the treatment process. Once you are medically stabilized, your treatment team will refer you to an addiction treatment program that is appropriate for you.

Depending on your treatment needs, you may choose to seek treatment at an inpatient or outpatient rehab center. Inpatient treatment centers provide you with 24/7 residential care consisting of a combination of individual counseling, family therapy, group therapy, 12-step programs, support groups, and medication maintenance treatment.5

Outpatient treatment centers offer the same types of therapies, but on an outpatient level while you continue to reside at home where you can remain active in your personal and professional life throughout the treatment process.5

Regardless of what type of rehab program you choose, addiction treatment can help provide you with healthy coping skills to obtain and maintain your sobriety long-term.

If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use or detox, call 800-996-6135(Who Answers?) to learn more about medical detox centers and inpatient and outpatient rehab facilities near you.


  1. Zhu, H. & Wu, L. (2018, August 29). National trends and characteristics of inpatient detoxification for drug use disorders in the United States. BMC Public Health, 18: 1073.
  2. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2015). Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 47. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US).
  3. S. National Library of Medicine. (2021, January 17). Alcohol withdrawal.
  4. World Health Organization. (2009). Clinical Guidelines for Withdrawal Management and Treatment of Drug Dependence in Closed Settings.
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.
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