How Long Do Drugs Stay in Your System?
Measuring the impact of a drug-use habit can seem like a relatively easy task. To do it, medical researchers would just need to determine how long drugs stay active within the human body, and they’d then calculate how often a specific person uses drugs. By matching the active time with the number of hits taken, they could come up with a specific number of hours in which damage was being done.
Unfortunately, it’s a little harder to measure the scale and persistence of drug abuse habits. That’s because drugs can remain active inside a person’s body, poking in little needles of damage, long after the person feels as though sobriety has returned.
Drugs are typically transient passengers, providing changes in perception or emotion that come on quickly and that don’t last very long. And the rate at which the drug sets to work and stops working can shift from one person to another.
Alcohol is a great example of this. NHS Choices suggests that it takes about an hour for the average body to digest and process one unit of pure alcohol. But this rate of digestion can move up and down depending on all kinds of things, such as:
- Percentage of body fat
- Medications taken
- Food eaten that day
That means one person might drink a shot of alcohol and feel a little unusual for an hour, or that person could feel different for two hours or even longer. It’s pretty far from an exact science.
But typically, when a person takes in drugs, the changes take place within minutes. And those changes seem to last for fairly short periods of time, but there are some exceptions.
Heroin is an excellent example of a drug that’s capable of providing longer sensations. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the typical user feels a rush of sensation almost immediately after taking this drug, and the altered state can last for several hours. During this time, breathing can slow, thought processes grow faint, and blood pressure can drop.
Prescription painkillers often contain ingredients that are similar in chemical structure to heroin. The painkiller OxyContin, for example, contains a synthetic ingredient that works on the same receptors used by heroin. It’s not surprising to learn then that OxyContin also stays active in a user’s body for hours. According to research published by Blenheim Pharmacal, Inc., OxyContin can remain active for 12 hours or even longer in some users. The drug just seems designed to stick.
Long highs like this come with some very unique dangers. That’s because people who are profoundly impaired for long periods of time can experience life-threatening episodes in which their vital systems are running so slowly that they slip away into death. As long as the drug is still present and working, that risk is still present. It makes long-lasting drugs seem just a touch less appealing.
But even when the high lasts a long time, there’s a point at which the person who uses drugs feels as though the world has returned to normal. There’s no lingering sensation of a high and no byproduct of a drug still present. But even then, the drugs could be considered active. That’s because many drugs cause persistent changes that users can feel even when they’re sober.Cocaine users, for example, tend to experience an overwhelming change in sensation that lasts for mere minutes, and that drops them back into reality just a short time later. These users might believe that they’re only plunging their bodies into danger for short spans of time, but in reality, they may be facing intense damage due to their drug use. The Alcohol-Drug Education Service suggests that cocaine has the ability to cut off the blood supply to vital tissues it touches, so long-time snorters may develop sinus infections, runny noses, or holes in the tissues that separate the nostrils. For these users, the drug might seem as though it’s no longer working or active. But it’s clear that it’s still continuing to affect the bodies of these users.Marijuana is another drug that can trigger changes people might not notice until hours later. For example, in a groundbreaking study in the journal Circulation, researchers found that of the more than 3,000 heart attack survivors they interviewed, 3.2 percent admitted to marijuana use in the year prior. Some had heart attacks while they were under the influence of the drug, but a full 37 of these people had their heart attacks much later, including some who had an attack 24 hours later.Alcohol has also been linked to health problems felt long after the high was gone. According to the National Cancer Institute, the more a person drinks and the longer that person keeps on drinking, the higher that person’s risk of cancer, particularly those involving the:
That seems to suggest that people who drink a great deal for a long time could face cancers, even if they were sober during that time period. They may have felt as though they’d processed the drug, but the damage continued.
In addition, persistent use of almost any kind of drug has been linked to changes in brain chemistry. In time, the cells of the brain come to depend on a regular supply of drugs, and in some cases, those brain cells can only operate at an optimal level if they have access to the drugs the person typically takes. These persistent changes are responsible, in large part, for the compulsive need to take drugs that many users report.
Blocking the Damage
While drugs can stay active in the body for quite a long time, and they can do a great deal of damage during the time in which they’re active, the health effects don’t have to be permanent. In fact, there’s a great deal of evidence that suggests that the body will heal, just as soon as people take the opportunity to get sober.
For example, the American Heart Association suggests that lung function can improve in those who quit smoking just two weeks prior. Many vital tissues in the body have a remarkable ability to knit back together and function as they once did, just as soon as they’re not being continually assaulted by the damage that drugs can bring.
The cells of the brain, for example, can adjust and amend when sobriety returns. In time, the circuits once fried by drugs can function in the absence of drugs. And the pleasurable signals that once came only with a hit of drugs could come about due to something natural, like a beautiful sunrise or the kiss of a loved one.
Why Treatment Matters
All of these benefits are available to anyone who wants to quit and who chooses to work hard to make that abstinence stick. But those who enter professional treatment programs may have a jumpstart on success that other people miss. That’s because rehab programs are designed to address the very types of damage that are common with drug use and abuse.
For example, many people who want to quit struggle to do so because they feel terribly ill in the weeks that follow their first attempt at sobriety. They feel as though they have the worst case of flu, and their brain cells might call out for drugs as a solution. Without help, a relapse could quickly follow these kinds of deep cravings.
In a treatment program, patients have access to medications that can soothe the chemical imbalances that cause these physical withdrawal symptoms. And they have a safe, supportive, drug-free environment that makes lapsing back to drugs harder to accomplish.
Once sobriety has taken hold, these people can begin to work with counselors and mental health specialists. They’ll learn how to build up a suite of skills that can help them to preserve the sobriety they’ve fought so hard for, and they’ll have the opportunity to practice those skills in an environment in which drugs are hard to get and support is easy to find. Counseling can even assist with mental health issues like depression or anxiety that can lie beneath an urge to use drugs. When people have the right tools to help them deal with those issues, they may find that their cravings for drugs decrease.
The NIDA suggests that about 2.6 million people in the United States entered treatment programs for drug abuse in 2011. That might seem like a lot of people, but it represents only about 11.2 percent of the number of people who need to get treatment. If fears about how rehab works are holding you back, or you’d just like to get some answers to common questions before you sign up, we’re here to help. Call the number at the top of the page. Our admissions coordinators are standing by to answer your call and give you the answers you’ve been looking for.