How long it takes a drug to process out of your body will depend on the type of drug used and the way you used it. The timeline is also affected by how long, how often, and how much of the particular drug you usually take.
Drug metabolism differs between people. It can be related to body composition, age, sex, biological, and genetic contributors.
In general, drugs take between a few hours and a few days to completely leave the body and be undetectable on a drug test.
As many as 1 out of every 10 adults in the United States used an illicit drug in the month prior to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). The high from a drug may only last a few minutes to a few hours, but the drug itself can remain present and active in the body for longer.
Effect of Intake Method on Metabolism
How drugs are administered plays a role in how long it takes for them to leave the body.
Drugs can be abused in the following ways:
Typically, it will take longer for your body to metabolize a drug that is swallowed in pill or tablet form. Drugs taken in this way need to be broken down through the gastrointestinal system. They can take longer to get into the bloodstream and therefore longer to get out.
When drugs are smoked, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) illustrates with cocaine, they can enter the bloodstream quickly. They go straight into the lungs and then to the heart; from there, they travel directly to the brain. The faster drugs get to the brain, the more rapidly the high will start and usually the quicker it will also burn out.
Injecting drugs also sends them straight into the bloodstream for a fast and shorter-lived high.
Typically, drugs that are smoked or injected will leave the body faster than those that are snorted. Drugs that are swallowed will stay in the body longest.
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Length of Time That Specific Drugs Process Out
The type of drug matters when talking about how long it takes for them to process out of the body. Some drugs have a rapid-onset high and a quick burnout, while others take longer to be effective but can remain active in the body for longer.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) publishes the following information on how long drugs are detectible on a urine drug test.
This can be an indicator for how long they are working in your body.
- Opioids (heroin and prescription painkillers like oxycodone): 1 to 3 days
- Cocaine: 1 to 3 days
- Ecstasy (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA): 2 to 4 days
- Benzodiazepines (sedatives, tranquilizers, and hypnotics): 1 to 7 days
- Methamphetamine and amphetamines (ADHD medications): 2 to 3 days
- Marijuana: 1 to 7 days
- Tricyclic antidepressants: 2 to 7 days
- PCP (phencyclidine): 1 to 3 weeks
- Barbiturates: 1 to 3 weeks
Drug Tolerance and the Duration of Use
The journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America publishes that marijuana can have a particularly long half-life since the active chemical THC is so fat soluble that it can stay in the body for longer. The more you take more often, the more the drug can build up in the body. In a heavy and regular user, marijuana will be detectable on a drug test for much longer than it will with a one-time user.
The more you use a drug, the more tolerant your body becomes to lower doses. This can cause you to increase your dosage. If you are a regular drug user, it will also take longer for the drug to leave the body. Even if it doesn’t feel like it is still active in the bloodstream, it can still be detected through a drug test.
Body Composition Matters
Body mass, composition, and weight all impact drug metabolism and how long a drug remains active in the body. Drugs like alcohol and marijuana can be stored in fat cells. Therefore, the more fat cells that are present, the longer the drug can remain.
Many drugs are broken down from their original state into metabolites as they are processed through the body. The healthier your body, the faster this process can work.
If you are highly active, have a low body-fat index and high muscle mass, and exercise regularly, you will likely process drugs through your system faster than a heavier and more sedentary person.
Demographics That Influence Drug Processing
Your age, sex, and even race can influence how long drugs take to work their way out of your body.
As you get older, your metabolism slows down. Per Journals of Gerontology, as you age, your liver function and blood flow reduce. This can impact metabolism. A slowed metabolism can mean that it will take longer for a drug to fully leave your system.
Women and men process and metabolize drugs differently as well. As reported by U.S. Pharmacist, women absorb drugs differently, and drugs can stay in their bodies for longer than they do in men. This can mean that drugs will take longer to leave a woman’s body than a man’s body.
Other personal factors like race can also be involved in how drugs are processed out of the body. The journal Nature publishes that genetic contributors related to race can play a role in how medications and drugs are metabolized.
Other genetic contributors can be involved in your personal route of drug metabolism and therefore how long a drug may stay in your body. Addiction is heritable, and drug tolerance and rates of dependence can also have genetic markers.
Biological factors can be involved in how long a drug may stay in your system.
Medical conditions or things that can impact your metabolism, including liver and kidney issues in particular, can mean that a drug may stay in your body longer than in someone who doesn’t have the same issues.
Drug Withdrawal and Detox
Regular and repeated use of a mind-altering drug changes the way your brain and body react, altering brain chemistry and function. This can cause drug dependence.
When the drug leaves your body and stops being active in the brain, you can experience withdrawal symptoms. Acute withdrawal symptoms can begin as soon as the drug stops working in your bloodstream. They can range from physical discomfort, including flu-like symptoms, to intense psychological side effects, such as anxiety, irritability, mood swings, depression, and insomnia. Additionally, post-acute withdrawal symptoms (PAWS) can linger for weeks up to a year or more. For this reason, a detox program followed immediately with an addiction treatment plan is often recommended.
Detox is when drugs process out of the body. When drug dependence is significant, withdrawal symptoms can be painful and even potentially life-threatening. It can take some time for your brain to stabilize after using drugs, especially when drug dependence is a factor.
A treatment program can offer the safest environment for detox. A formal detox program can use medications, therapies, and supportive methods to manage withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings. This can help your brain achieve balance as drugs leave the body.
Medical detox, combined with a complete addiction treatment program, can help you find stability in recovery.