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Illicit Drugs Detox Guide: Timelines, Symptoms & Effects

Understanding the reasons someone struggles with substance abuse may be difficult for those who have never abused drugs. Some people use drugs to get high, lose weight, or stay awake for long periods of time. Others abuse drugs to self-medicate problems, such as the symptoms of mental illness or the emotional pain of relationship troubles. People frequently combine illegal drugs with alcohol or prescription medications, which increases the risk of dangerous side effects.

Chronic drug abuse can lead to addiction, which is a progressive and debilitating condition. People with substance addiction continue to use drugs even when they face negative consequences. Quitting drugs often takes more than good intentions or a strong will. Many people benefit from professional detox and addiction treatment.

When you try to quit taking drugs, you will likely experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms may be difficult to deal with alone and often lead to relapse. A professional drug detox program will provide you with the support and treatment you need to withdraw comfortably and safely.

Common Drugs of Abuse

People abuse many kinds of illegal drugs. Some are more popular than others. Each drug has unique desired effects, side effects, and consequences. Commonly abused illicit drugs include:

  • Heroin: Heroin is an illegal opioid that may be smoked, snorted, or injected. It is common for users to begin with prescription opioids and then transition to heroin use.2
  • Cocaine: Cocaine is one of the most commonly abused stimulants and may increase attention, alertness, and energy. The drug may be snorted, injected, or taken orally.2
  • Crack cocaine: Cocaine may be processed into crack cocaine, a rock crystal which can be heated to produce vapors that are inhaled into the lungs. The name crack cocaine comes from the cracking sound the rock makes as it is heated.3
  • PCP: Phencyclidine, commonly called PCP, is a hallucinogen that is sold as a liquid or powder and commonly smoked in combination with marijuana or another type of leafy material. The effects include detachment, dissociation, hallucinations, and paranoia.15
  • Bath salts: Bath salts, or synthetic cathinones, are dangerous and illegal in the U.S. These drugs are man-made and mimic the effects of methamphetamine, MDMA, and cocaine.5
  • Spice/K2: Spice and K2 are common brands of synthetic cannabinoids, which are plant mixtures that have been sprayed with the drug and are smoked. Spice and K2 are intended to mimic the effects of marijuana but they are actually more dangerous and unpredictable than marijuana.16
  • MDMA: Also known as Ecstasy and Molly, MDMA is a synthetic drug that changes a person’s mood and awareness of surrounding conditions. It is chemically similar to both stimulants and hallucinogens, and many people abuse the drug in rave or party settings.6
  • LSD: LSD, which is often referred to as acid, is one of the most powerful hallucinogens.7 It is synthesized from lysergic acid, which derives from a fungus that grows on rye and other grains. People most commonly take it orally on blotter paper that has been soaked in LSD.7
  • GHB: People abuse GHB for the feelings of pleasure and calm that it produces. This drug may cause the person using it to be vulnerable to sexual assault as it increases libido, suggestibility, and may cause amnesia while they are using the drug.8
  • Ketamine: Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic that is approved for surgical use for humans and animals. It is commonly known as Cat Valium, Special K, or K.7
  • DMT: DMT is a hallucinogen. It is naturally occurring in Amazon plants but can also be man-made. The drug is a white crystal powder and is sometimes referred to as Dimitri.7
  • Opium: Opium is a naturally occurring substance that is produced from the sap of the opium poppy plant. It is the raw source of several opiate alkaloids, including codeine, morphine, and thebaine, which are used to synthesize other narcotic drugs such as heroin and several prescription painkillers .9
  • Crystal meth: Crystal meth is a form of the stimulant drug methamphetamine. The drug looks like pieces of glass or shiny rocks and people often use it in a “binge and crash” pattern in which the drug is used several times in a short period of time to extend the high.10
  • Kratom: Although kratom isn’t a controlled substance as of yet, it is still in the grey territory of legality, causing a lot of controversy. It is a tropic tree indigenous to Southeast Asia and has been used as an herbal supplement for many years. Scientists have isolated more than 25 chemicals from kratom, and one of its main chemicals, mitragynine, has opioid-like effects. The drug also has both sedative and stimulant effects. Side effects can include constipation, nausea, sweating, weight loss, and insomnia.17

It can be hard to identify if someone you know is using drugs, let alone knowing which substance(s) they’re using. However, there are some things to keep an eye out for.

Signs and Symptoms of Drug Abuse

Drug abuse may cause significant changes in a person’s mood, behavior, and functioning. While each drug has a unique list of physical signs and symptoms, there are many common effects to look for when you suspect substance abuse in a loved one.

The following are common signs and symptoms of drug abuse or addiction:4,11

  • Withdrawing from activities and life, spending more time alone
  • Losing interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • Neglecting personal care, such as bathing, changing clothes, or brushing their teeth
  • Experiencing mood changes
  • Having sleep problems
  • Missing important appointments
  • Failing to fulfill responsibilities at work, school, or home
  • Eating a lot more or a lot less than usual
  • Exhibiting poor judgment
  • Experiencing problems in interpersonal relationships
  • Demonstrating risky behaviors, such as having unprotected sex
  • Having suicidal thoughts
  • Lying or demonstrating secretive behavior

If you are concerned that someone you love may have problems with drug abuse, it is important that you know these signs and symptoms. Recognizing the early signs may allow you to help your loved one get the drug detox treatment they need.

Consequences of Chronic Use

Long-term drug abuse has many harmful and potentially dangerous consequences. Each person will experience consequences unique to their situation and life. Below is a list of general long-term effects of chronic substance abuse.12

  • Driving under the influence
  • Violence or crime such as homicide, theft, or assault
  • Injuries
  • Homelessness
  • Absences from work
  • Loss of job or expulsion from school
  • Divorce or other relationship problems
  • Child neglect
  • Legal problems related to possession or dealing of illegal drugs
  • Financial hardship
  • Physical health problems
  • Mental health problems
  • Dependence, resulting in withdrawal symptoms with cessation of use.
  • Addiction, a complex condition characterized by continued use regardless of detrimental effects.

As you can see, the consequences of long-term drug abuse can be extremely serious; drug abuse is not something to take lightly.

Drug Detox Symptoms and Timeline

With chronic use of certain drugs, the body naturally adapts to and eventually becomes dependent on the substance. If drug use is abruptly reduced or stopped, a physically dependent person will experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.

The symptoms of withdrawal depend on several factors, including which drug a person takes and how long they have been taking it. In general, physical symptoms may last for several days, but general depression or other mood symptoms may last for weeks. No two people will have the same withdrawal experience.

There are certain factors that can affect the manifestation of withdrawal symptoms and how long they last, including:

  • Age of the person using.
  • The individual’s physiology.
  • Length of drug abuse.
  • Typical dose of the drug.
  • Frequency of drug use.
  • Use of multiple substances.
  • The presence of other physical or mental health issues.

Some withdrawal symptoms are potentially harmful, and it’s best to seek professional detox treatment to ensure safety during the withdrawal period.

Substance Detox Programs

To find the right detox treatment, a person should consider their unique physical and mental needs. The individual needs to feel comfortable in their environment in order to get the maximum benefits of detox treatment. What works for one person may not be ideal or appropriate for another person so it’s important to do your research when searching for detox programs. Detox can occur in a number of different settings, such as:

  • Hospital detox: If the drug abuse has caused serious health consequences or the person is having other immediate health issues, drug detox treatment may begin in the hospital. People who are taken to the hospital due to an overdose may also start their detox in the hospital. The person will stay overnight at the facility and both their medical and mental health needs will be managed while they go through drug detox.
  • Residential or inpatient: During residential inpatient treatment, the person stays at the treatment facility around-the-clock during the initial drug detox. These treatment facilities will not only assist with the detox process, but will also care for both physical and mental health needs. The facility may offer post-detox treatment options as well.
  • Outpatient: Outpatient detox treatment may be the best option for someone who has responsibilities, such as family, work, or school. Outpatient programs typically require attendance of group or individual counseling at set times, and are most suitable for those with solid support systems.
  • Physician’s office: In relatively less severe cases of drug abuse, the person may be able to undergo detox treatment at home with the help of an experienced physician. This would also require the person to have a strong support system to ensure success of the detox program.

Drug addiction is a chronic health condition that benefits from being treated over the long-term. Once the initial detox treatment is completed, the person will need to connect with a post-detox community or program that will continue to assist them on their journey through recovery.

Post-Detox Options

Continuing addiction treatment after the acute detox program is very important for successful recovery. Post-detox programs help the person identify the underlying issues that led to the development of problematic patterns of drug use and learn new, healthy ways to cope with stressors. Common substance abuse treatment options include:

  • Inpatient treatment: Care is provided 24 hours a day in a non-hospital setting in which the person lives for various lengths of time depending on the program and severity of drug addiction. These programs use the community of residents, staff, and social setting as a part of the treatment program. This type of treatment may include group or individual counseling.
  • Outpatient treatment programs: An outpatient program may be best suited for people who have jobs, families, or other responsibilities and a strong support system at home. A low-intensity parogram may require a lesser time commitment, whereas a more high-intensity program may offer an intensive day treatment program. Group counseling is often a large part of outpatient treatment programs. Some outpatient programs may also be able to assist the person with medical or mental health issues.
  • Luxury programs: These programs offer upscale amenities, such as gourmet meals, swimming pools, spa treatments, and massage therapy while the person participates in the drug detox program. This type of program is often private pay.
  • Executive programs: Created specifically for the busy working professional, these programs are designed to address the confidentiality and work-related issues specific to this group. These programs often let participants continue work while they attend their treatment program.
  • Holistic programs: These programs have a whole person approach, focusing on healing the mind, body, and spirit. Alternative modalities include art therapy, music therapy, nutritional counseling, meditation, and yoga.
  • Faith-based programs: These programs address the addiction treatment needs of the person while integrating their religious beliefs and offering faith-based support.
  • 12-step programs: These programs follow a 12-step process of recovery. Common programs for drug users include Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, and Heroin Anonymous. Regular attendance of program meetings helps to create a community and support system for the person.
  • Non-12-step programs: These programs offer more secular support and utilize evidence-based practices surrounding addiction and psychology.
  • Population-specific treatment centers: Treatment centers may offer services to a specific population. Below is a list of some of the specific population treatment centers available:
    • LGBT: These programs meet the special needs of the LGBT people. This may include the social and interpersonal consequences of coming out to friends and family along with other specific needs of the LGBT population.
    • Women: Programs for women are created to address the unique needs of women with substance abuse issues.
    • Men: These programs aim to address common issues men may struggle with in recovery.
    • Veterans: Programs created specifically for veterans help them deal with the social and mental issues unique to this population and their past experiences, such as trauma.
    • Teens: These programs allow the teens to be with their peers while they learn new coping strategies.

Drug abuse and addiction should be treated as long-term health conditions with both a physical and mental component. No two people are the same, therefore, no two journeys through addiction, detox, and recovery will be the same either.

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