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What Happens to the Body During Detox?

by Will Long

May 23, 2022
scrabble letters spell detox on a plate

Updated: June 12, 2023, at 10:49 a.m.

Detox from alcohol or drugs causes chemical changes in your body

While detoxing from drugs or alcohol, especially if you’ve experienced prolonged substance use, your body and mind will go through chemical changes. This often triggers withdrawal symptoms which can be uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous. That’s why it is important to go through detox under the supervision of medical professionals who can monitor your progress and keep you safe.

Your body will naturally break down drugs and alcohol into different chemicals that are then expelled. If you’ve developed a dependency on these substances, you may experience intense cravings along with mental stress and will need a strong support system to help you from using again.

Medical detox usually precedes the therapeutic treatment period in a rehab stay. It can last anywhere from three to 10 days, depending on the substance you’ve used and how long you’ve been using it. The purpose of a medical detox is to prepare your body to go without an addictive substance for the long term. Detox is simply removing toxins from your body so you don’t crave more of it or shut down without it.

At Landmark Recovery, we make sure you’re comfortable and well-cared for during our medical detox process. Once your body and mind are cleared, and you’re no longer experiencing withdrawal symptoms of strong cravings, you’ll be ready to go through our residential treatment program.

WARNING: Don’t Detox at Home

Detox should only be done under a doctor’s guidance or supervision due to the harmful effects it can have on the body and your overall health. If a detox goes wrong during a “cold turkey” or at-home attempt, your life could be at stake. All Landmark Recovery patients are supervised, emotionally supported, and receive comfort care during a medical detox.

What Happens to the Body During Detox?

When you detox, ingested substances, including alcohol, are metabolized and naturally flushed out of your system. Drug metabolism is the transformation of a substance within the body from one chemical to another as it undergoes multiple chemical reactions. When a drug is broken down, it changes chemically, allowing it to be excreted from the system.

During this process, the substance loses its inebriating effects. Sometimes this is done with the help of medication in a process called medication-assisted treatment (MAT). This allows doctors to use medications to reduce or even block different withdrawal symptoms, to make you as comfortable and safe as possible.

Anyone detoxing from drugs or alcohol is at risk of experiencing withdrawal symptoms. They occur when your body is deprived of a substance it has relied on. Without certain substances, the body will “lash out” and cease normal functioning in various ways as it seeks normalization.

If the body is expecting a particular substance it needs to continue operating at baseline, then the brain will tell your body it needs something, thereby causing a “craving.” Cravings are a significant reason why so many of those in recovery will relapse at least once on their path to indefinite total recovery.

When free from a substance, your body can normalize the use of that substance, so much that it needs a drug to maintain normal or elevated dopamine levels. Patients who experience the post-detox dopamine crash period can become suicidal or develop a form of mental illness. Dopamine crashes are important to manage, and further reinforce the need for therapy in recovery.

The Difference Between Alcohol and Opioid Withdrawals


After four or five days of detoxing from alcohol, you should stop craving a drink. Seizures are possible within the first six hours of cessation, furthering the need for you to go into a supervised detox treatment program. During the first 72 hours of alcohol detox, you may develop a variety of symptoms.

Withdrawal symptoms can include the following:

  • Headache
  • Tremors
  • Nausea

For those experiencing minor withdrawal, these symptoms usually peak between 18 and 24 hours. Less common withdrawal symptoms for those suffering from an alcohol use disorder include visual, auditory, and tactile hallucinations, or even delirium tremens, commonly known as DTs. After around 72 hours, your withdrawal symptoms will begin to lessen over time. Symptoms can last for weeks in the most severe cases, requiring around-the-clock observation to survive such a difficult ordeal.


Opioids and opiates come with very serious physical withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal from opioids can cause life-threatening symptoms. It should be noted that opioid detoxification varies from person to person, based on the type of substance, the length and intensity of use, how the drug was taken (injected, ingested, inhaled), and other factors such as an individual’s overall health.

Opioid examples include:

  • Oxycodone
  • Codeine
  • Heroin
  • Morphine
  • Hydrocodone
  • Hydromorphone
  • Methadone

Within the first 24 hours of stopping opioid use, individuals may experience anxiety, restlessness, the inability to sleep, uncontrollable spasms, teary eyes, runny nose, abnormal sweating, and aching muscles. More intense symptoms of opioid withdrawal may appear after the first day, including gooseflesh, dilated pupils, nausea, diarrhea, stomach cramps, high blood pressure, and rapid pulse. After 72 hours, these symptoms will begin to subside. After a week, most physical symptoms are gone.

Some opiates are metabolized faster than others. Heroin leaves the body quickly, so withdrawal generally begins within 12 hours. For individuals taking methadone—which is often used to manage detox symptoms and help the addict to taper off—withdrawal might not start for 36 hours after the last use.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Medication-assisted treatment, or MAT,  utilizes medications to help someone overcome an addiction. In some cases, medications are used to block the effects of substances, helping to reduce your cravings. In other cases, medications are used to reduce or stop withdrawal symptoms, making detox more comfortable and safe.

MAT is most often used in situations when a patient is suffering from an opioid use disorder, particularly when replacement therapy is used to treat the patient. Replacement drug therapy can be done with Suboxone or some other milder opioid. By doing replacement therapy, patients can still get high from the opioid replacement, but the administration is usually combined with other drugs or done in such a manner as to lessen the abuse potential.

Learn More About Drug and Alcohol Detox

To learn more about how Landmark Recovery can make your medical detox period a successful one, give our dedicated admissions team a call at 888-448-0302 today. Our mission is to save a million lives in the next century, starting with those suffering from alcohol use disorders. Unlock your potential and achieve the recovery you’ve always wanted.

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About the Author

Will Long

Will Long

A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, Long has been a writer for Landmark Recovery since 2021. He specializes in research and writing about substance abuse from a scientific and social perspective. Unearthing information from underexplored, far-flung corners of the Internet, Long’s passion is finding emerging trends in substance use and treatment that the public should know about.