What is Alcohol Detox?
Table of Contents
- What is Alcohol Detox?
- Understanding Alcohol Misuse & Abuse
- Who is at Risk for Developing an Alcohol Use Disorder?
- Recognizing the Signs of Alcoholism
- Understanding the Alcohol Addiction Treatment Process
- What is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?
- Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
- The Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline
- Understanding the Alcohol Detox Process
- Why is it a Bad Idea to Detox from Alcohol at Home?
- The Next Steps of Alcohol Addiction Treatment
- Finding Alcohol Detox Programs and Other Substance Abuse Treatment Options Near You
- Medically Reviewed By
For those struggling with an alcohol use disorder, these individuals will need to seek out professional addiction treatment providers when attempting to overcome their substance use habits.
This is because their drinking habits will result in their development of an alcohol dependency, in which their system requires them to continue abusing this substance in order to be able to function properly.
Thus, if the person were to drastically reduce their alcohol consumption or suddenly stop drinking altogether, this can cause several uncomfortable, and potentially life-threatening symptoms of withdrawal.
This is why, for many individuals who are seeking treatment for an alcohol addiction, their recovery process will begin with a medically supervised alcohol detox program. This will allow them to be gradually weaned off of their alcohol intake under constant medical care.
Alcohol detox programs can help recovering addicts progressively overcome an alcohol dependence, while minimizing, and even preventing the withdrawal symptoms that often come with stopping chronic alcohol use.
Understanding Alcohol Misuse & Abuse
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that, when consumed, can disrupt the brain’s communication pathways. Over time, this will begin to alter the way a person’s brain looks and works, causing mood and behavioral changes, as well as reducing cognitive functions.
When consumed, alcohol can stimulate the brain’s reward systems, causing it to release the feel-good chemicals, dopamine and serotonin. For those who regularly drink heavily, this alcohol abuse will eventually result in the brain’s inability to produce these chemicals on its own.
Because of this, individuals may continue to drink heavily and regularly, as their alcohol intake may be the only way that they are able to experience pleasure or feel normal. At this point, the individual has developed an alcohol dependence.
Without seeking the help of addiction and medical professionals, attempting to overcome an addiction to alcohol can be extremely difficult and, for some, may even feel impossible.
Who is at Risk for Developing an Alcohol Use Disorder?
While anyone is capable of developing habits of alcohol or drug abuse, there are several risk factors that may make someone more prone to forming a substance addiction. These may include:
- Genetic Factors. Individuals with a family history of addiction will be more likely to develop habits of substance abuse than those who do not. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), genetics can contribute up to half of a person’s risk of addiction.
- Early Use. Because the brain does not stop developing until the mid-late 20s, early substance use can make individuals far more likely to develop various behavioral health complications in the future.
- Frequent Alcohol Use. Those who regularly drink, or practice binge drinking, will significantly increase their risk of becoming addicted to alcohol.
- Environmental Factors. Negative work, school, or home environments can also lead to alcohol abuse as a coping mechanism, significantly increasing a person’s risk of addiction.
- Gender. Studies suggest that men are more susceptible to developing addictions to alcohol, while women are more likely to experience negative health consequences from alcohol use.
- Social Factors. Exposure to problematic alcohol use, whether through a negative home environment or social influences, can significantly increase an individual’s own risk of substance abuse. This is particularly common with peer pressure seen in high school and college settings.
The Relationship Between Substance Abuse and Mental Health
In addition to the risks listed above, another significant causing factor of substance abuse is the existence of any underlying mental disorders. In particular, those which go undiagnosed or untreated.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), many people will attempt to self-medicate the negative emotions caused by their mental illness through abusing drugs or alcohol.
Unfortunately, this is rarely an effective solution and one that only provides temporary relief in the event that it works as intended. Furthermore, if continued over long periods of time, this substance use will likely only worsen their mental health condition, or even produce new ones.
Recognizing the Signs of Alcoholism
It can be hard to admit when you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction to alcohol. However, this is the first, and most important step in being able to overcome these substance use habits.
There are several signs that may indicate that someone has formed a physical or psychological dependence on alcohol, including:
- Needing to regularly consume alcohol, even if this is causing issues within the individual’s personal, work, or social life.
- Hiding or getting defensive over drinking habits when questioned by others.
- Spending excessive amounts of time and money acquiring, using, or recovering from the effects of alcohol use.
- Getting into legal trouble as a result of drinking.
- Continuing to use alcohol despite this potentially causing or worsening medical conditions.
- Having to drink more frequently or in larger amounts in order to achieve a desired effect.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when attempting to reduce or stop use of alcohol.
If you or a loved one is exhibiting any of these behaviors, this may be a good indicator that it is time to seek out professional addiction treatment programs, before these habits have a chance to get any worse.
Understanding the Alcohol Addiction Treatment Process
There are several forms of alcoholism treatment available to those struggling with alcohol addictions today. Due to the effects of alcohol on the body, this process will more than likely begin with a recovering individual’s participation in a medical detox program.
When carried out under the supervision of a medical professional, alcohol detoxification can help significantly ease alcohol withdrawal symptoms. This can be significantly beneficial for those struggling with severe alcohol dependence.
Once detox has been completed, individuals will usually be encouraged to continue receiving care through inpatient and outpatient treatment centers. What specific treatment center will best serve a person’s recovery needs will depend on the severity of their addiction.
If you are not sure what level of substance abuse treatment is best for you, seeking out professional treatment advice from your healthcare provider or a certified addiction professional can help you narrow down these options.
What is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?
If a person stops drinking after having consumed alcohol heavily for a long period of time, they will likely experience alcohol withdrawal syndrome. This refers to the mental and physical problems a person who is dependent on alcohol will develop after removing it from their system.
Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, slowing the brain’s ability to function. This makes the body have to work harder to stay alert and active. If a person’s alcohol level suddenly drops, their brain will stay in a state of overdrive, consequently causing them to experience withdrawal.
Depending on the amount of alcohol consumed and how frequently the person drinks, they may experience withdrawal symptoms that may be mild or severe, and even potentially fatal, in nature.
This is why it is always recommended to seek out the assistance of a healthcare professional when attempting to overcome an alcohol use disorder, as this can help manage and even prevent many symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
There are several withdrawal symptoms that someone who is dependent on alcohol may experience when attempting to reduce or stop the use of this substance. This period can affect people differently based on several factors, including:
- How long the individual has been abusing alcohol.
- The amount of alcohol consumed before they decided to stop drinking.
- Personal medical history and body chemistry.
- Any simultaneous use of other substances.
Generally, an individual who is withdrawing from alcohol will experience various side effects, including anxiety, nausea, vomiting, and insomnia, amongst several others. More serious symptoms such as hallucinations and seizures may also occur.
When participating in an alcohol detox program, recovering individuals will work with their specific treatment provider to make an appropriate treatment plan that can address all of their personal care needs.
Alcohol Withdrawal and Delirium Tremens
For some individuals who have become dependent on alcohol, detoxing from this substance may produce life-threatening symptoms. This includes a condition known as delirium tremens, or DTs. This is a serious condition that often requires immediate medical attention.
Symptoms that are commonly associated with delirium tremens include tremors, withdrawal seizures, altered mental status, intense hallucinations, and rapid heart rate. Typically, this condition most commonly affects patients who have been abusing alcohol for multiple years.
It is critical to seek treatment immediately if you think you may be suffering from delirium tremens. Even the possibility of developing these alcohol withdrawal symptoms is reason enough to get professional help to detox from alcohol.
The Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline
While individuals may experience different symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and have varying onset periods for these symptoms, there is still a general timeline that can be used to characterize this period.
There are three main stages of alcohol withdrawal, each of which can present its own challenges to a recovering individual. Regardless of the severity of these stages, recovering at a medical detox treatment facility can help significantly ease the withdrawal period.
Stage One of Alcohol Withdrawal
The first stage of alcohol withdrawal can begin as soon as 6 hours after a person’s last drink. During this period, individuals will likely experience mild withdrawal symptoms – although these can still be difficult to manage on one’s own – including:
- Mild anxiety
- Shaky hands
While it may be possible for a person to manage more mild symptoms by themselves, there is no guarantee that they will not develop more severe symptoms later on during the alcohol withdrawal period.
Seeking out professional assistance with the alcohol detox process at an addiction treatment center can significantly help manage and even prevent many of these alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Stage Two of Alcohol Withdrawal
It is usually during the second stage of alcohol withdrawal that individuals will start to experience more severe withdrawal symptoms; some which can even be life-threatening. These will usually develop between 12-24 hours after a person has finished their last drink, and may include:
- High blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Increased body temperature
- Alcohol cravings
- Mood swings
As many of these more severe withdrawal symptoms can be considered a medical emergency, seeking out professional treatment providers, such as those which offer medically supervised alcohol detox, is absolutely essential for a person’s safe and successful recovery.
Stage Three of Alcohol Withdrawal
For many individuals, stage two of the alcohol withdrawal period will signify the end of this process for them. However, some people may experience prolonged symptoms, which will generally develop between 48-72 hours after they stop drinking.
During stage three of the alcohol withdrawal process, while milder symptoms may begin to abate, several of the more severe side effects may progress. Delirium Tremens will usually develop during this period, and maybe more common for those with nutritional deficiencies.
Common alcohol withdrawal symptoms that may persist or develop during this period include:
- Mental confusion and disorientation
- Anxiety and insomnia
- High blood pressure
- Heavy sweating
Understanding the Alcohol Detox Process
When participating in an alcohol detox program, there are several steps that go into this form of treatment. While a person’s specific recovery plan may vary based on their personal care needs, alcohol detox will typically follow a general treatment process.
Clients arriving at a treatment facility will go through an initial intake assessment and interview. Those receiving treatment for alcohol use will be evaluated based on the withdrawal symptoms present upon arrival, as well as how long it has been since their last drink.
At-risk clients who have consumed alcohol within 72 hours of their arrival, or who are showing moderate to severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms, will likely be admitted directly into their specific treatment facility upon arrival.
While each person will detox at their own rate, there is a common timeline for alcohol detox of around five to ten days. During this time period, clients will be treated for their symptoms with fluids, as well as various medications to help ease withdrawal symptoms.
The alcohol detox process will also involve nutritional counseling and dietary planning, as many individuals who struggle with alcohol abuse also have nutritional deficiencies, or otherwise poor eating habits.
For anyone suffering from delirium tremens, they will be more intensely monitored and given appropriate medications to prevent cardiac and respiratory arrest – conditions that could otherwise lead to death.
Medications Used During Alcohol Detox
Most alcohol detox programs will incorporate medication-assisted treatment options in their recovery approach. These medications can help manage and even prevent various alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Medications used during detox may also help to reduce alcohol cravings, which can significantly reduce a recovering individual’s risk of relapse. Some of the medicines most commonly used during alcohol detox may include:
- Antiadrenergic agents. These drugs inhibit epinephrine and norepinephrine signals, and are often used to help alleviate opiate, benzodiazepine, and alcohol withdrawal symptoms during detox.
- Anticonvulsants. These medications are often administered during alcohol detox in order to help prevent tremors and seizures during withdrawal.
- Antidepressants. Antidepressant medications may be administered during alcohol detox to help relieve psychological withdrawal symptoms, including depression and anxiety. They help to fix chemical imbalances in the brain, which can cause mood and behavioral changes.
- Anti-nausea medications. Common alcohol withdrawal symptoms of nausea and vomiting can be managed through the administration of anti-nausea medications, such as Zofran and promethazine.
- Antipsychotics. Those who are undergoing alcohol detox while struggling with co-occurring mental disorders may be administered antipsychotic medications. These can be used to help treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, and other psychiatric issues. These can help to reduce withdrawal symptoms of psychosis and hallucinations, as well as various others.
- Benzodiazepines. These sedative medications are commonly used for treating alcohol withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, panic attacks, seizures, and insomnia. However, because they have their own risk for abuse, benzodiazepines will be closely monitored and controlled when prescribed for detox purposes.
Why is it a Bad Idea to Detox from Alcohol at Home?
To some, the less severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may seem easy to manage at home. Many people focus on the physical symptoms and fail to realize that mental and emotional withdrawals can be even harder to deal with.
Even when a person is a few days sober after going through alcohol detox and starting to feel better physically, the intense cravings for alcohol, feelings of anxiety, and depression can be overwhelming, serving as another important indicator of the need for rehab as well as AA.
Detoxing at a licensed facility will provide 24-hour access to counselors who can help with the unseen symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Those attempting to detox at home may try to do so for the very purpose of avoiding others.
However, the reality of this process is that receiving clinical and emotional support from others is essential for successful detox and continued recovery.
Furthermore, detoxing at home is not only dangerous because of the possibility of something going wrong medically. It is dangerous because the individual is typically still close to triggers and temptations to drink.
If the person has not rid their home of alcohol they may not make it past the first few hours of detox. This is because they may ultimately choose to drink to ease their symptoms of withdrawal.
Detoxing at professional treatment centers removes individuals from easy access to alcohol or those who would provide it to them, ensuring that they are able to stay as safe and comfortable as possible.
Some people are apprehensive to quit drinking because they are nervous about the withdrawal symptoms experienced during alcohol detox. While some people may only be affected by minor effects of alcoholism, others may face extreme pain.
Withdrawal symptoms can change quickly and aggressively, which is why it is important to detox under the care of medical professionals. These treatment providers will be able to help you manage your symptoms, allowing you to focus on your recovery and get better.
The Next Steps of Alcohol Addiction Treatment
For many individuals, their recovery process does not end once they have completed alcohol detox. Rather, this is often just the first step on their journey to achieving sobriety. Once they have successfully detoxed, they may choose to move on to additional levels of care.
The most common of these are inpatient and outpatient treatment programs. What treatment provider a recovering individual may choose to seek out can vary based on a number of factors, such as the severity of their addiction, as well as any existing financial or time constraints.
Inpatient care offers a more intensive and structured treatment option compared to outpatient services, requiring their clients to live at a treatment center throughout the duration of their recovery process. This may include detox, as well as various other services, such as:
- Individual and group counseling.
- Nutritional counseling.
- Structured physical activities.
- Holistic recovery services.
- Medication-assisted treatment.
- Vocational and social skill training programs.
- Relapse prevention support services.
- 12-step recovery programs.
- Addiction education programs.
Outpatient treatment can take the form of partial hospitalization programs, 12-step meetings, or a combination of these methods in order to help individuals maintain their abstinence and continue to stay dedicated to their sobriety.
An outpatient treatment provider will likely offer more affordable recovery services than those provided by more intensive levels of care, making them best suitable to those with unavoidable financial constraints and time commitments.
With outpatient care, recovering individuals can acquire relapse-prevention skills, and learn how to stay sober without external support. This may include their participation in 12-Step Programs that encourage abstinence, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
Finding Alcohol Detox Programs and Other Substance Abuse Treatment Options Near You
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, this can be incredibly challenging and overwhelming to deal with. That’s why at Find Addiction Rehabs, we are dedicated to helping people like you find the help they need.
Our hotline is available 24/7 to connect you with professional addiction treatment services and recovery resources, anytime you need them.
So make the right choice and call now, so that we can help you find an alcohol detox program that will get you started on your path to recovering from addiction and achieving long-term sobriety, today!
Nicole Rogers is an experienced and accomplished writer with special interests in the fields of Anthropology, English, and behavioral health, and has written countless articles for newspaper publications, institutional research journals, and Find Addiction Rehabs.
Her alma mater is Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. Nicole hopes to spread awareness of and combat the stigmatization surrounding addiction and substance abuse treatment through her writing and work in the field.