Alcohol Detox: What You Should Know

Alcohol use is prevalent in the United States, with behavioral health statistics showing that nearly nine out of 10 people aged 18 and over report drinking at some point in their lives. While not everyone who drinks develops a life-threatening addiction, nearly 15 million people aged 12 and over were diagnosed with alcohol use disorder in 2019. According to the Cleveland Clinic, those living with this disorder are unable to stop drinking even when they experience common symptoms that affect their daily lives and relationships. Fortunately, those experiencing alcohol abuse and alcoholism can manage the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal with the help of professional treatment.

What Is Alcohol Detox?

The alcohol withdrawal symptoms associated with the detox process are uncomfortable at best and painful and life-threatening at worst, making them a deterrent to alcohol detox for those living with alcohol dependence. However, getting through detox is the first step in alcoholism treatment. During the alcohol withdrawal process, alcohol is completely flushed from the body. At this time, the patient learns how to navigate the recovery process and withdrawal symptoms with the help of individual and family therapy.

Alcohol acts as a depressant that the body learns to rely on after months or years of excessive alcohol consumption. It mimics the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid, a neurotransmitter that helps the central nervous system regulate stress and anxiety. Over time, GABA receptors become desensitized, leading to increased feelings of depression and anxiety. This causes the individual to want to drink more frequently. If they then stop drinking completely, they may experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms, which at worst can include delirium tremens.

While alcohol withdrawal symptoms may be unavoidable, substance abuse treatment centers specialize in alleviating serious complications, such as panic attacks, and ensuring the process is as safe and comfortable as possible. Many centers use benzodiazepines and other drugs clinically proven to reduce alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

“Coming to Ranch Creek Recovery, I had been through three different opiate addiction treatment centers in CA. I was feeling lost and somewhat hopeless. The serene setting gave me peace and I began healing. The counselors were very inspiring and helped me grow in ways I haven’t experienced in years. I began to see the bigger picture that a life in sobriety can give you. Although I’m somewhat scared to leave the comfort and security that Ranch Creek Recovery and staff has brought me, I’m also excited to share my growth with my family and to start my new life. Thank you RCR!”

– David

Get Help with Insurance Coverage

Our drug and alcohol rehab program accepts several national insurance plans and are in-network with most carriers including HealthNet, MHN, Anthem BlueCross, Aetna, Cigna as well as others. To verify if your insurance is accepted and check your out-of-pocket costs call Ranch Creek Recovery at (877) 997-8931.

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Is Your Loved One Struggling With Addiction?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) outlines several signs of alcohol use disorder. The severity of alcohol use disorder is determined in the DSM-5 through questions regarding the individual’s alcohol habits, the impact their alcohol use has on their life and whether they experience medical complications due to drinking too much alcohol.

If your loved one is living with alcohol addiction and has previously experienced alcohol withdrawal, professional treatment with licensed medical professionals may help them quit drinking and begin their journey to sobriety.

Why Should I Avoid Alcohol Detox at Home?

At-home detox under the supervision of medical professionals as part of an outpatient treatment program may be an option for those with mild to moderate alcohol addiction or drug abuse disorder. However, detoxing on your own can be dangerous due to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Life-threatening symptoms, such as alcohol hallucinosis and seizures, require immediate medical attention, making inpatient care a better alternative for those who drink heavily.

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome and Alcohol Hallucinosis

Alcohol hallucinosis is a rare but serious symptom of alcohol withdrawal syndrome that’s associated with auditory hallucinations. It closely mimics a mental illness called schizophrenia and can be very distressing to the individual. Alcohol hallucinosis generally develops within 12-24 hours of the individual’s last drink, and it can progress into delirium tremens, a condition associated with visual hallucinations and delusions.

While alcohol hallucinosis and delirium tremens are generally only present in those with a history of excessive alcohol intake, they’re serious alcohol withdrawal symptoms that require specialized mental health services.

Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures

Alcohol withdrawal seizures are among the more severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. According to the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, heavy drinkers may experience this symptom as a result of imbalances in the brain caused by alcohol. When the amount of alcohol consumed suddenly drops, excessive brain activity occurs, causing seizures.

How Long Does Alcohol Detox Take?

Just as the factors contributing to an individual’s alcohol abuse are unique, the alcohol withdrawal timeline is different for everyone. Several factors affect the duration of alcohol detox, including how long the individual has been drinking, how old they are and whether they have certain conditions.

The Duration of the Individual’s Alcohol Use

A person who’s been drinking excessively for years typically experiences severe symptoms for longer, while those who’ve been drinking for just a few months or are prone to binge drinking are more likely to experience mild withdrawal symptoms. Detox may be particularly risky for those who’ve had an alcohol addiction for several years or decades. Those who began drinking excessively during their teen years are at an increased risk for the more serious symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, including delirium tremens, and may benefit most from medication-assisted treatment to ease withdrawal symptoms.

Their Age

Regardless of the individual’s age, alcohol detox can be difficult, but older adults may be at greater risk for complications. This is partially because about two-thirds of seniors with alcohol addiction developed their alcohol use disorder earlier in life and may have lived with the disease for decades before getting treatment. However, physiological changes that come with age can also worsen detox symptoms.

Co-Occurring Medical Conditions

Sometimes, people develop an alcohol addiction when they use alcohol to self-medicate for conditions like depression, chronic pain or anxiety disorders. Co-occurring medical conditions, whether they existed before or stemmed from alcohol intake, can complicate the process of substance abuse treatment. These conditions include:

  • Low platelet counts
  • Low potassium levels
  • Low sodium levels
  • Dehydration
  • Abnormal liver function

Clients in addiction treatment receive monitoring and support from a medical team specializing in co-occurring disorders and treating them alongside the withdrawal symptoms.

The Alcohol Detox Process

While the alcohol detox process may be a little different for each person, depending on their biology, how much they drink and how long they’ve lived with the addiction, it typically features three stages. Each stage has its own challenges and triumphs, and professional care and monitoring can ensure maximum comfort and safety throughout the entire alcohol detox process.

Early Stage Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms first become evident about eight hours after the individual’s last drink, though heavy drinkers may experience mild symptoms within just a couple of hours. During the early stage, the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are typically manageable. At this time, the individual may experience feelings of anxiety alongside the physical symptoms, such as sweating, nausea, headache and shakiness. This phase typically lasts about 24 hours, depending on the extent of the individual’s alcohol use.

Many people who attempt alcohol withdrawal on their own at home relapse at this point, resorting to drinking to avoid worsening symptoms. In a detox center, however, clients get one-on-one monitoring and support to help them comply with their treatment plan. This may include individual or group counseling sessions and medication-assisted treatment.

Peak Stage

After the early stage of alcohol withdrawal symptoms, individuals enter the peak stage, during which more severe withdrawal symptoms arise. This stage, which occurs between 24 and 72 hours after the last drink, comes with the same symptoms present in the early stage. However, some individuals may experience more significant side effects that impact their physical health, including heart palpitations, high blood pressure, severe confusion, hallucinations, increased blood pressure and in extreme cases, delirium tremens and seizures. These symptoms may last for as long as a week after they first begin.

For those at the beginning of their journey to sobriety, the peak stage is the most challenging and often the most dangerous. Those in rehab receive continued support from highly trained addiction specialists. A multidisciplinary team monitors their symptoms and has treatment and interventions for those at risk of complications.

Weakening Stage

After the peak stage, symptoms begin to wane, and individuals enter the weakening stage of alcohol withdrawal. While some symptoms may persist for a few weeks, they’re typically manageable and easily treated with medication. Some people experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome, or PAWS, which is associated with prolonged symptoms such as fatigue, anxiety, delayed reflexes and sleep disturbances, which can last from a few months to a year.

Despite persisting symptoms, making it to this stage is an accomplishment. Even so, the individual’s sobriety journey is only just beginning. Lasting sobriety requires not only learning to manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms but also establishing new habits and coping mechanisms that don’t involve alcohol. In some cases, interpersonal relationships need healing, and the individual may need to establish boundaries with those who encouraged or enabled their substance abuse. Alcohol rehab provides a supportive environment that helps individuals navigate the detox stages and establish new rules and routines to ensure lasting sobriety.

Questions About Alcohol Abuse Treatment?

If you or a loved one is living with substance abuse or alcohol addiction, help is available. Learn more about our program by calling (877) 997-8931 and speaking with an addiction specialist. A specialist can help you understand the clinical practice admission process and addiction treatment options. They can also help you understand the connection between substance abuse and mental health and guide you in taking the next steps toward substance abuse treatment.