Alcohol Withdrawal And Detoxification

Alcohol Detoxification

Alcohol detoxification helps get a person ready for further treatment and may take place in a variety of settings. The length of alcohol detoxification and withdrawal will likely depend on the person and the severity of their alcohol use disorder (AUD). For best results, alcohol detox and future treatment should occur in the same place.

What Is Alcohol Detoxification?

Alcohol detoxification is the process of overcoming a physical or psychological dependence to alcohol. Detoxification is the body’s process of ridding itself of the harmful toxins produced by alcohol use. Because this process can be uncomfortable, attempting alcohol detoxification without assistance may lead to further alcohol abuse.

Detoxification from alcohol should occur in a professional setting, like an inpatient treatment center or hospital. The goal of detox is to help a person achieve an alcohol-free state, relieve symptoms of withdrawal, and assess and potentially treat any co-occurring disorders (dual diagnosis).

In many settings, the detoxification process consists of three stages: evaluation, stabilization, and getting a person ready for treatment. Detoxification services can range in intensity, but all should offer these three components as a doorway into alcohol abuse treatment.

If a person does not receive further treatment after detoxification, they may revert back to using alcohol and continue the cycle of addiction. A person may need professional assistance because the process of alcohol detox can be long and difficult.

How Long Does It Take For Your Body To Detox From Alcohol?

The duration of the alcohol detoxification process depends on the individual, how frequently they drank alcohol, and at what quantity. The severity of alcohol use disorder (AUD) will likely affect the overall length of time that detox will take.

Every person is different and likely detoxes alcohol at a different rate. There is no one set length for alcohol detox. How quickly a person can move on to further treatment will depend on the intensity of their withdrawal symptoms. Symptoms of withdrawal occur after a person with a dependence to alcohol stops drinking. Some symptoms can be uncomfortable and may last for weeks, though the discomfort of these symptoms can be lessened with medical assistance.

Symptoms Of Alcohol Withdrawal

The more a person drinks regularly, the more likely they’ll experience symptoms of withdrawal when they stop. Certain physical or mental health problems may also worsen symptoms, and some symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous.

Common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • abrupt mood changes
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • nervousness
  • nightmares
  • shakiness
  • trouble thinking

Symptoms of withdrawal may set in as early as 8 hours after a person stops drinking, but symptoms usually peak between 24 and 72 hours after their last drink. Other symptoms of withdrawal may include:

  • enlarged pupils
  • headache
  • increased heart rate
  • insomnia
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • sweating
  • tremors
  • vomiting
  • yellowing of the skin

Depending on the person, some symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may be worse than others. The worst case of alcohol withdrawal is a condition known as delirium tremens. Delirium tremens includes symptoms of severe alcohol withdrawal like fever, agitation, extreme confusion, seizures, and hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there).

When symptoms are severe, alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening. While it’s likely best to seek professional help and support before the worst of alcohol withdrawal kicks in, people may attempt to make it through withdrawal and detox at home.

Alcohol Detox At Home

Due to the severity of withdrawal symptoms, and potential lack of support, it’s not recommended to attempt alcohol detox at home. Professional help is strongly recommended to ensure a safe detox process. Some services may offer a form of outpatient alcohol detox that allows a person to continue to live at home until the process reaches completion.

For outpatient alcohol detox programs, a person will have to travel from home daily to receive detox treatment. In order to attempt alcohol detox while residing at home and attending outpatient detox services, a person must have a stable home environment. Without support at home, alcohol withdrawal and detox can be very difficult and may lead to further alcohol abuse.

Outpatient detox services are best for people with mild symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. When symptoms of withdrawal are severe, a medically-supervised detox is likely the best course of treatment.

Medically-Supervised Alcohol Detox

A medically supervised alcohol detoxification program will likely occur at a hospital or inpatient treatment center. This setting will completely restrict any access a person may have to alcohol, likely offering constant care and supervision. The person will likely be closely monitored for any symptoms of delirium tremens (the worst case of alcohol withdrawal) like hallucinations and fever.

By providing around the clock, 24-hour care, access to medications, and a supportive and comfortable environment, a medically-supervised detox can help reduce the pain and discomfort of alcohol withdrawal. Medical supervision during alcohol detox may also include staff monitoring of body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and toxin levels in a person’s blood. Staff may also use certain medications like benzodiazepines—which may be administered under careful observation—to help with symptoms of anxiety, seizures, and insomnia (trouble sleeping or staying asleep).

If a person does not begin further treatment immediately after detox, they increase the risk of relapse. Many inpatient treatment centers provide alcohol detox services, as well as future treatment options for alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Treating Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) occurs when a person compulsively drinks alcohol, struggles to keep alcohol use under control, and feels high levels of stress, anxiety, and discomfort when they stop drinking. A person suffering from AUD will likely experience intense symptoms of withdrawal that may require a medically-supervised detoxification.

It is essential that further treatment take place immediately following detox. Effective treatment for AUD involves a combination of medication and behavioral therapy.

Medication And Behavioral Therapy

Currently, there are three government-approved medications that may be used to treat AUD:

  • disulfiram
  • naltrexone
  • acamprosate

Disulfiram can be used to induce unpleasant side effects, like headache and nausea, when a person drinks any amount of alcohol. Naltrexone is effective for blocking the intoxicating effects of alcohol and can be used to reduce cravings. Acamprosate can help with preventing alcohol relapse down the road and is especially useful shortly after a person stops using alcohol.

Some of these medications may be combined with behavioral therapy to offer a person better chances for recovery. The ultimate goal of behavioral therapy is to change a person’s thoughts and attitude towards alcohol. Therapy can include one-on-one sessions, groups sessions, and more intensive therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational interviewing.

A person suffering from AUD will likely benefit from staying at an inpatient treatment center. Inpatient treatment centers are effective because they likely provide everything a person needs under one roof: peer support, medications, behavioral therapies, treatment for other physical and mental health conditions, and alcohol detoxification/withdrawal support.

Alcohol detoxification and withdrawal can be difficult and potentially life-threatening. A comfortable environment, professional support, and access to medications likely increases the chances a person will complete the first step towards recovery and continue to engage in treatment.

Call now for more information on alcohol detoxification and further treatment.


MedlinePlus—Alcohol Withdrawal
Addiction Resources – Inpatient Drug And Alcohol Detoxification
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism—An Overview of Outpatient and Inpatient Detoxification
U.S. National Library of Medicine—Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment

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