Alcohol Detox: What To Expect When You Detox From Alcohol

Last Updated: February 5, 2024

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Article at a Glance

  • Alcohol detox is important for individuals with alcohol use disorder to minimize withdrawal symptoms and ensure their safety.

  • Detox typically occurs in a medically supervised environment and involves a combination of medication, therapy, and support.

  • Withdrawal symptoms can range from mild discomfort to severe and life-threatening conditions like seizures and delirium tremens.

  • The detox process involves different stages, including acute withdrawal, early abstinence, and protracted abstinence.

  • Inpatient medical detox provides a safe environment to manage withdrawal symptoms and receive support.

  • Treatment during medical detox may include medications to manage withdrawal effects and psychological and behavioral therapies to develop coping skills.

What Is Alcohol Detox?

Alcohol detoxification (detox) is the process of the body adjusting to the absence of alcohol. It is the first recovery step for those struggling with chronic alcohol use. A person with alcohol use disorder is more likely to resume drinking to avoid unpleasant or painful withdrawal effects.

This process often occurs in a controlled, medically supervised environment like a detox facility. Detox typically involves a combination of medication, therapy and other forms of support to manage withdrawal symptoms and ensure the patient’s safety. 


Why Is Alcohol Detox Necessary

Alcohol detox is essential because prolonged and excessive alcohol consumption affects both your body and mind. Your body develops a physical dependence on alcohol, resulting in uncomfortable and potentially risky withdrawal symptoms upon cessation. Medical detox is crucial for managing these symptoms and serves as the initial step towards recovery.

What’s the Difference Between Detox and Withdrawal?

Detox and withdrawal, though frequently used interchangeably, have distinct meanings. Detox is the medically supervised process of eliminating alcohol from the body, encompassing the associated symptoms. Conversely, withdrawal refers specifically to the symptoms experienced when someone dependent on alcohol ceases consumption. It’s generally viewed as a component of the detox process.

Alcohol Detox Symptoms

Detox symptoms, influenced by factors like drinking duration, consumption quantity, and general health, differ among individuals. They usually emerge within hours to a day after the last drink and can persist for several days if not longer.

Mild Detox Symptoms

Mild detox symptoms usually occur within 12–24 hours after the last drink and may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating 

These symptoms can be uncomfortable but are usually manageable with medical support and can be seen as the body’s initial response to the absence of alcohol.

Severe Detox Symptoms

In some cases, detox can lead to more severe symptoms, such as seizures, hallucinations or confusion. These usually appear within 48–72 hours after the last drink. A serious condition called delirium tremens can also develop, causing severe confusion, seizures and possibly a coma. Severe symptoms can be life-threatening and require immediate medical attention.

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS)

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is a term used to describe the combination of symptoms that can occur when a person with alcohol dependence suddenly stops drinking. This term encompasses both mild and serious symptoms. AWS can be dangerous, and medical supervision is crucial during detox.

Stages of Alcohol Recovery

Abruptly quitting or cutting down on alcohol can cause severe withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms vary depending on the time since the last drink, and each stage presents unique challenges and durations based on individual factors.

Stage 1: Acute Withdrawal

The acute withdrawal stage begins with unpleasant symptoms a few hours to a day after the last drink. In some cases, more severe symptoms such as seizures or delirium tremens may occur. This stage typically lasts up to a week or more and requires medical supervision.

Minor withdrawal symptoms can occur approximately 6–12 hours after the last drink, including:

  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea and vomiting

Alcoholic hallucinosis can occur approximately 12–24 hours after the last drink and can include:

  • Visual hallucinations or seeing things that aren’t there
  • Auditory hallucinations or hearing things that aren’t there
  • Tactile hallucinations or feeling things that aren’t there, like pins and needles

Withdrawal seizures can occur approximately 24–48 hours after the last drink.

Delirium tremens can occur approximately 48–72 hours after the last drink and can include:

  • Hallucinations (mostly visual)
  • Disorientation
  • Rapid rise in heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Fever
  • Excessive sweating
  • Agitation

Delirium tremens is an extremely serious effect that can develop from alcohol withdrawal. There is a 5–15% chance of fatality from delirium tremens, resulting from complications including slowed breathing, seizures, abnormal heart rhythm and lung injury from aspiration.  

Stage 2: Early Abstinence

Early abstinence often begins after the acute withdrawal symptoms subside. In this stage, someone may continue to have strong cravings for alcohol and might experience mood swings, lower energy levels and trouble sleeping. During this phase, it is recommended to start rehab and engage in therapies and treatments aimed at understanding triggers and developing coping strategies.

Stage 3: Protracted Abstinence

The final stage, protracted abstinence, can last several months or longer. During this stage, a person continues to work on their recovery and maintain their sobriety. They might experience occasional cravings for alcohol, but these typically decrease over time. Ongoing therapy, support groups and lifestyle changes are important during this stage to help sustain long-term sobriety. Protracted abstinence is the goal for anyone trying to overcome alcohol addiction.

Treatment for Alcohol Detox

It’s crucial for anyone struggling with alcohol use disorder to seek help. Medical professionals can assess and address potential complications that may occur during withdrawal. Medications may be necessary for a successful detox, and detoxing at a licensed facility can be life-saving.

In a controlled medical setting, healthcare professionals can also assist with managing alcohol cravings, reducing the risk of relapse. Inpatient rehabilitation facilities provide a supportive environment, free from everyday triggers, enabling individuals to focus on their recovery and well-being.

Alcohol Detox at Home

Detoxing from alcohol isn’t just dangerous; it’s the most dangerous form of withdrawal. Because of this, no medical professional will recommend detoxing at home unless it is very likely that you will not experience any serious withdrawal symptoms.

Those wanting to detox at home should always check with a doctor before attempting to do so. A doctor can help you understand the risks specific to your circumstances and may be able to support you if you decide to detox at home.

Inpatient Alcohol Detox

Inpatient medical detox provides a safe environment to minimize or prevent withdrawal symptoms.

What Is Inpatient Alcohol Detox?

Inpatient medical alcohol detox allows the body to adjust to the absence of alcohol at a licensed medical facility with help and support readily available. This process involves managing withdrawal symptoms under the supervision of medical professionals and helps ensure you are as safe and comfortable as possible during the entire process. 

How Does Inpatient Alcohol Detox Work?

Treatment may include: 

  • Medication to ease withdrawal symptoms, prevent seizures and providing sedation
  • Monitoring of vital signs, such as blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature, so medical complications are quickly recognized and treated
  • Hydration and nutritional support that replenishes vitamin and mineral deficiencies, including folic acid and thiamine (vitamin B1), to promote comfort and health

How Long Does Inpatient Alcohol Detox Take?

The treatment received during medical detox will depend on the amount of alcohol an individual drinks, the time that person has been misusing alcohol, co-occurring medical conditions and if they have been mixing alcohol with other drugs. It will, however, typically take 5–10 days for most individuals.

How Much Does Inpatient Alcohol Detox Cost?

Inpatient alcohol detox can range from $1500 to $3500, but it is often covered by insurance and government-funded resources. Most people don’t have to pay the full cost because there are various resources available to help reduce expenses. Many individuals discover that enrolling in an inpatient detox program involves little to no personal cost.

Drugs Used in Alcohol Detox

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that affects several neurotransmitters in the brain, including GABA and glutamate. When an individual stops using alcohol or reduces their alcohol intake, central nervous system excitation occurs, leading to withdrawal effects. Different medications may help manage alcohol withdrawal, including:

  • Benzodiazepines: These medications help prevent or minimize withdrawal symptoms, including seizures. Generally, long-acting medicines, like Diazepam (Valium), are preferred. However, intermediate-acting benzodiazepines, like lorazepam (Ativan), are better options for those with reduced liver function. 
  • Anticonvulsants: Some studies show that medicines, such as carbamazepine and divalproex, may help to reduce alcohol cravings; however, more clinical data is needed.
  • Beta Blockers: These drugs may be used to help with tremors and lower blood pressure and heart rate. They can also help reduce anxiety.
  • Nutritional therapy: Due to dehydration and altered electrolyte levels, IV fluids may be administered, along with certain vitamins and minerals, such as thiamine (Vitamin B1), magnesium and/or multivitamins. 

What Happens After Alcohol Detox? 

Medical detox is the first step towards a healthy, substance-free life. After detox, a medical professional will assist in determining the most suitable treatment option: inpatient rehab, partial hospitalization or outpatient program. Close monitoring is crucial for successful outcomes, regardless of the chosen program.

During treatment, patients will receive psychological and behavioral therapies to develop the necessary skills for maintaining recovery. Education will be provided to help individuals avoid triggers or effectively cope with them if encountered. 

You Never Have to Detox From Alcohol Alone

The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper offers an evidence-based medical detox with highly-trained and empathetic healthcare professionals. At our facility, patients are provided with round-the-clock care and have access to addiction specialists who can address patient concerns at any time. 

We believe in a holistic approach to recovery, and our medical alcohol detox program is often the first step. We provide the full spectrum of care, including inpatient rehab, outpatient care and transitioning steps in between. Contact a Recovery Advocate today to get started on the journey to an alcohol-free life.

Sources

Bayard, Max; Mcintyre, Jonah; & et al. “Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.” American Family Physician. March 15, 2004. Accessed June 7, 2023.

Rahman, Abdul & Paul, Manju. “Delirium Tremens.” StatPearls. August 27, 2021. Accessed June 7, 2023.

O’Mally, Gerald & O’Mally, Rita. “Alcohol Toxicity and Withdrawal.” Merck Manuals, May 2020. Accessed June 7, 2023.

Silpakit, Orawan. “Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention Program for Alcoholism: A Case-Control Study.” Siriraj Medical Journal, February 24, 2015. Accessed June 7, 2023.

Davies, Martin. “The role of GABA receptors in mediating the effects of alcohol in the central nervous system.” Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, July 2003. Accessed June 7, 2023.

Allen, Mary J.; Sabir, Sarah; Sharma, Sandeep. “GABA Receptor.” StatPearls, February 17, 2021. Accessed June 7, 2023.

Saltz, Richard. “Introduction to Alcohol Withdrawal.” Alcohol Health and Research World, 1998. Accessed June 7, 2023.

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