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How Does Detox Work?

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

December 19, 2023

Table of Contents

An understanding of how detox works can help you to feel more comfortable about moving from active addiction into sustained recovery.

Addiction is a chronic and relapsing brain condition that requires ongoing treatment. Recovery is a lifelong process that begins with detox.

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Before you engage with inpatient or outpatient therapy, it is first necessary to purge the toxins accumulated during substance use over a period of seven to ten days.

Not only is a supervised detox the most comfortable pathway but is also the safest approach to detoxification. If you initiate your recovery at a licensed medical detox center, you will have access to FDA-approved medications alongside continuous clinical and emotional care.

What is Detox?

Detox for alcoho, prescription medications, or alcohol is the period from discontinuing use of the substance to fully metabolizing and expelling all residual toxins. Toxins are a by-product of chronic substance abuse.

Detox is a precursor to rehab rather than a substitute for rehab. It is intended to address the physical component of dependence.

What do they do in detox then?

All supervised medical detox programs have the following core goals:

  1. Helping you to process toxins from the system safely and comfortably.
  2. Managing withdrawal symptoms and cravings with medications, if appropriate.
  3. Streamlining the transition from detox into an ongoing treatment program, whether outpatient, inpatient, or virtual.

Detox can be categorized as follows:

  • Medical detox: A supervised medical detox is always advisable for those with moderate or severe addictions. FDA-approved medications can streamline the withdrawal process. Additionally, you can initiate your recovery in an environment free of distractions, addictive substances, and triggers for substance abuse with a committed team available around-the-clock.
  • Home detox: For individuals with mild addictions and no risk for severe withdrawal symptoms, it is possible to stop using alcohol or drugs in a non-clinical setting. It is not only inadvisable to detox at home, but it could be dangerous and possibly life-threatening.

Why Go to a Medical Detox Center?

Although some people may successfully quit alcohol or drugs at home using the cold turkey method – abruptly discontinuing use – the majority of home detoxes deliver poor outcomes.

Detoxing at home means you will have no access to medications, no medical support, and no emotional care to help you address cravings. When these factors combine in the face of intensely uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, the risk of relapse is significantly increased.

Cravings are one of the diagnostic criteria for substance use disorder (drug addiction) and alcohol use disorder (alcoholism). If you detox at home, you may use substances simply to alleviate cravings and withdrawal symptoms. There is much less chance of this happening when you are in a substance-free medical detox center.

Home detox for alcohol can be fatal. Of those with severe alcohol use disorders, 5% will experience the severest form of withdrawal known as DTs (delirium tremens). If symptoms of DTs present in a non-clinical setting, it can be a life-threatening medical emergency.

How do detox centers work, then?

What Happens During Detoxification?

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), reports that the median length of drug detox is eight days.

During the acute withdrawal phase, you will be medically monitored and actively supervised and. If you need any emotional support, you can connect with addiction specialists and mental health professionals at a licensed medical detox center.

Medications can be effective during detox. These include:

  • Buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone: for opioid withdrawal
  • Disulfiram, naltrexone, and acamprosate: for alcohol withdrawal
  • Benzodiazepines: for anxiety
  • Vivitrol: for cravings
  • Ambien and other z-drugs: for insomnia
  • Clonidine: for blood pressure levels
  • Diazepam: for seizure

Detox, whether for drugs or alcohol, is primarily a physical process. Sustained sobriety, on the other hand, is predominantly psychological. When you detox under medical supervision, you increase your chance of recovery without relapse.

How Does a Detox Work?

Detoxification involves three core phases:

  1. Evaluation phase: During an initial assessment at a licensed medical detox center, a clinical professional can determine your withdrawal potential and acute intoxication potential. Based on the findings, the treatment team can create a personalized detoxification plan at the appropriate level of care.
  2. Stabilization phase: During the stabilization phase of detox, you will following your treatment plan. This may involve the use of approved medications.
  3. Transitional phase: Detox offers a seamless transition into inpatient or outpatient treatment. Here, you can unpack the psychological aspect of addiction.

Detox in Southern California and Addiction Treatment at Renaissance Recovery

If you feel you would benefit from a drug and alcohol detox, we can help guide you. Renaissance Recovery, we don’t offer detox programs but we have connections with medical detox centers throughout southern California and beyond to get you set up with the best foundation possible.

While detox is a critical and foundational step on the road to recovery, you should transition from detox into rehab for the strongest chance of sustained sobriety.

Now for the good news. With the potential complications of withdrawal and detox negotiated and your body purged of substances, you can engage with outpatient treatment for your addiction, so you don’t necessarily need to pack your bags and head to inpatient rehab.

We offer intensive outpatient programs and partial hospitalization programs so you can get the right level of care for your addiction. Our dual diagnosis treatment program is designed for anyone with co-occurring addictions and mental health conditions.

All Renaissance treatment programs offer you access to an evidence-based combination of MAT (medication-assisted treatment), counseling (individual and group), and psychotherapy, as well as holistic therapies. With an alumni program and aftercare in place, you can use your detox and treatment at Renaissance to build the firmest base for ongoing sobriety. If you are still skeptical and questioning “how does detox work?”, just call the friendly team today at 866.330.9449.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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