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The trouble with using drugs to feel better “just this once” is that “once” rarely proves enough. Long before physical addiction takes hold, the temporary euphoria of a “high” becomes a siren song luring the user back to recapture that experience. And more often than not, time and pleasure of that high is inversely proportional to level of dependence on the drug.
Most people recovering from drug addiction remember their initial experience as pleasurable (although if the drug was smoked, that pleasure was often tainted by coughing and nausea). Typically, the ultimate journey into addiction can be blamed on that first dose being too pleasurable: someone started out fully intending drug use to be a one-time or occasional thing, but the memory of how good it felt to relieve their stress, forget their problems or feel on top of the world kept calling them back whenever life presented new pressures. Eventually the response became so automatic, and their brains so used to the drug, that they needed it not to feel “good” but to feel functional.
Compounding the problem, “good times” tend to be remembered as better than they actually were (memory screens out the negative aspects, which is a problem in avoiding relapse as well as in making the initial decision to quit a drug). Often, early experiences actually are better. Familiarity breeds contempt, and the brain learns to regard once-euphoric experiences as part of daily maintenance: once new enough to induce exceptional pleasure, now “everyday” enough that one feels uncomfortably normal when the drug is taken, uncomfortably deprived when it isn’t. (With real addiction, of course, the deprivation is often worse than uncomfortable.)
This article looks at some common “how long does it take?” questions regarding drugs and addiction.
HOW QUICKLY DOES A HIGH TAKE EFFECT?
How long it takes to feel the high typically depends on the method by which the drug is taken:
- Inhalation or smoking: From a few seconds to 15 minutes. Drugs that enter the body via the lungs rush from there into the bloodstream and on to the brain. Since foreign substances in the lungs take up space normally filled by oxygen, lowered oxygen levels are also a factor in feeling lightheaded or “high.”
- Injection: From 30 seconds to 20 minutes. Again, putting the drug directly into the bloodstream gets it to the brain quickly.
- Oral administration (pills, eating or drinking): Around 30–90 minutes, longer for slow-release pills swallowed whole. A drug that enters the body via the digestive system will take the long route into the bloodstream, delaying the onset of full effects.
Exactly how long it takes any individual to start feeling high depends on both physical and psychological factors, from weight to gender to the reaction a person expects to have. (Scientific research has documented that people who expect a strong high will exhibit intoxication symptoms before the drug has a chance to reach their brains, and even after taking something that contains no actual drugs.)
HOW LONG DOES A HIGH LAST?
Likewise, the duration of the high, once it starts, is affected by the method of drug use and by psychological factors, as well as by strength of dose, overall physical condition and the user’s level of addiction/tolerance.
The question of “how long does a high last?” is difficult to answer decisively: search five different information sources on the same drug, and you may find five different answers. That’s because, while medical tests can measure how long a drug physically stays in a person’s system, how long a high is felt depends on subjective interpretations of personal experience, which vary widely.
- As noted above, a felt high may have little actual relation to the level of drug currently in someone’s system.
- People who have longstanding addictions are likely to feel—and define—a high differently than newer users, which means there are wide variations in the figures that make up an average. Many people who struggle with addiction feel little actual “high” at all: their experience of the drug is defined by relieving pain or remaining functional.
- Further skewing the number-of-users-to-duration-of-high ratio, many social drinkers, and many people who take potentially addictive drugs according to prescription, experience no felt high because that wasn’t the effect they were looking for.
Still, the following can be taken as typical duration periods for the intoxicating effects of some common drugs:
- Alcohol: About one hour per drink, although many people who take one or two drinks with a meal feel little intoxicating effect. A person who drinks to the point of impairment may take 8–12 hours to regain full cognitive and motor function.
- Benzodiazepines: Effects (which may not include a “high” if the drug is taken according to prescription) last about 1–6 hours, depending on whether a short-acting or long-acting benzo formula is used.
- Cocaine: Anywhere from five minutes to two hours, depending on size of dose and method of administration. Perhaps because it is rarely taken orally, cocaine has a reputation for producing particularly intense but short-lived effects. This often leads to it being used in “binges”—several doses in rapid succession, often with each dose larger than the last—in attempts to prolong the euphoria.
- Methamphetamine: 8–24 hours, depending on method of administration (“meth” is typically smoked, swallowed or injected) and how much was taken. Often, though, the actual “felt high” is much shorter, leading users to take more of the drug before any of the original dose passes out of their bodies.
- Opiates: Release times for prescription pills vary, and pills taken according to prescription rarely cause discernible “high” feelings. With illegal opiates such as heroin (and with prescription opiate pills crushed for a more intense effect), the high can last anywhere from 15 minutes to four hours.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO BECOME ADDICTED?
Some people use drugs regularly for years without ever becoming dependent or addicted. Others are well on their way down the slippery slope within a month of their first taste.
Factors that affect how long it takes to become addicted include:
- Genetic predisposition
- Mental health problems, especially depression or anxiety
- General physical condition, including age-related changes (people under 25 often have still-developing brains that may be permanently impaired by drug use, and longtime social drinkers should start watching for new reactions to alcohol once they reach their late forties)
- Frequency and amount of drug doses, also the method and intensity at which drugs are taken
- Composition (“purity”) of the drug
No matter how long someone has taken a drug, key red flags indicating growing dependence are:
- Taking more of a drug than is recommended by a prescription or doctor
- Resorting to illicit means of obtaining drugs: stealing, buying on the black market, requesting new prescriptions from doctors who don’t know about the old ones
- Feeling sluggish, irritable or defensive on a regular basis
- Needing larger doses than before to get the same high (or getting a high from doses that never caused problems before)
HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE TO GET AN ADDICTIVE DRUG OUT OF YOUR SYSTEM?
The question of “how long does a drug stay in your system?” is open to almost as many answers as the question of how long a high lasts.
- If defined as the length of time it takes the obvious “high” and the felt aftereffects (such as a hangover) to wear off: anywhere from one to 24 hours.
- If defined as how long a drug can be detected by official “drug tests”: usually around 2–3 days, although there are many variables. Evidence of some one-time or occasional uses vanishes within hours. Addiction or chronic use may remain detectable for six weeks or more. And with a hair-follicle test (as opposed to a blood, urine or saliva test), traces may linger as long as 90 days.
- If defined as how long it takes to physically “withdraw” from addiction: 5–14 days, with the worst symptoms peaking about halfway through. Exact times vary according to a person’s physical condition, type of drug, duration of addiction and whether medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is used.
- If defined as how long it takes to be weaned from psychological and emotional dependence: around three months with professional support and therapy.
However, periodic cravings for the drug may return for months or even decades, especially if a person is prone to favorable reminiscing about “highs.” This is why:
RECOVERY IS A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT
In one sense, a “high” can last for life, if “high” is defined as physical addiction with inclinations to seek easy stress relief and to react to new doses in old ways. It is never safe to take “just one” dose of a drug that formerly drove an addiction, and often not safe to take any potentially addictive drug at all.
A therapist or doctor can advise you on your own risk areas and how to minimize exposure to them. Stay active in sobriety support groups. Plan in advance how you will deal with any relapse temptations that surface. The pull of the old-time high may never go away completely, but with commitment and diligence, you can find healthier ways to maximize good feelings for the rest of your life.
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For related information on drug effects and addiction, see the following articles: