Alcoholism Detox

Medically Reviewed By Kayla Loibl | Last Edited:  August 21 ,
2020 
| 4 Sources


Alcoholism detox is the first step and an essential element in preparing the alcoholic for rehabilitation, treatment and recovery. However, detox and withdrawal can be dangerous because a substance is being removed from the body upon which it has become highly dependent. Therefore, detoxification should only be performed under medical supervision.

The Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina advises that if you are an alcoholic who wants to stop drinking, you should first consult with a qualified counselor or physician who can determine the best strategy for you to give up alcohol.

Your state of health and severity of your addiction will be factors considered when determining the proper approach, but often a medical hospital or an alcohol and drug detox and treatment center is selected so that your condition can be closely monitored.

Since the 1980s, most detoxifications have been done on an outpatient basis – fewer than 20 percent of patients have required admission to an inpatient unit. More than 70 percent of patients who participate in an outpatient program complete detoxification, and 50 percent of the patients continued in treatment after going through detoxification.

What is Alcoholism Detox?

Detoxification is the removal of alcohol from your body by a process called 'detox'. As we have mentioned before, alcoholism detox should only be performed under medical supervision.

To prepare for alcohol detox, you must stop drinking gradually to avoid serious health risks. If you are in immediate danger of severe toxicity or other life-threatening complications, it is best to be admitted into a hospital for the duration of your withdrawal period.

Your state of health and severity of your addiction will be factors considered when determining the proper approach, but often a medical hospital or an alcohol and drug detox and treatment center is selected so that your condition can be closely monitored.

Although some individuals try to quit "cold turkey," many experts believe alcoholics require professional help in stopping their use of alcohol and other substances.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recommends that people who have problems with alcoholism consider entering a treatment program that includes detoxification. Detox programs vary depending upon the severity of your drinking problem, your individual health needs and the services available in your area.

What is Withdrawal?

Withdrawal is the reaction of your body to being deprived of something on which it has become dependent. When you drink alcohol on a regular basis, both your body and mind become accustomed to having it around. Then, when you suddenly stop drinking altogether, or drastically reduce the amount you usually consume in one sitting, your system has to readjust itself and make up for what's been lost.

What Happens During Alcohol Detox?

Detoxification is the process by which an individual rids his or her body of most of the alcohol present. There are many reasons why this should only be done under medical supervision: safest detoxification procedures and medications have not yet been perfected; numerous complications may arise from withdrawal that would normally resolve if medical help is immediately available; there is little margin for error when dealing with alcohol withdrawal; and if the individual stops drinking or reduces consumption without medical supervision, they may return to heavy drinking.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are often more severe than those associated with other kinds of drug addiction because of alcohol's long half-life in the body: it takes longer to eliminate most of the substance from your system than many other drugs do.

Because your liver metabolizes alcohol slowly, you can become intoxicated quickly, so that even a few drinks can affect you. Therefore, stopping suddenly will have a serious impact on your nervous system - especially since it has grown used to having its regular dose every day.

Detox and Withdrawal

There are many factors to consider before choosing an appropriate alcoholism detox program. The first step in selecting a program is to determine if you need medical detox or just residential withdrawal management (inpatient or outpatient), which will require professional medical monitoring and assistance with medication for alcohol withdrawal.

Alcoholism Detox - Severe Cases

The withdrawal process in severe cases can create a variety of serious and even life-threatening physical symptoms such as:

  • shaking or tremors, 
  • headaches,
  •  vomiting, 
  • sweating, 
  • restlessness, 
  • loss of appetite,
  •  insomnia,
  •  Delirium Tremens (DTs), 
  • hyperactivity and convulsions.
alcoholism-detoxPhoto by Grace Madeline

Therefore withdrawal will likely require inpatient care. Inpatient treatment also effectively separates patients from social and environmental influences that could trigger a relapse. Signs of a probable need for inpatient detox include:

  • A history of severe withdrawal symptoms
  • A history of alcohol withdrawal seizures or DTs
  • Several past detoxifications
  • A medical or psychiatric illness accompanying the alcoholism
  • Recent high levels of drinking
  • A lack of a dependable support network
  • Pregnancy

Anticonvulsant and other medications, including antipsychotic drugs, are often prescribed to help the severe alcoholic withdrawal from alcohol safely and with as little physical and mental discomfort as possible.

Detox can take anywhere from three to 14 days, depending on the circumstances.

Alcoholism detox will not, in and of itself, prevent a resumption of drinking. Rather, it should be seen as a means of setting the foundation for further treatment in order to ensure a relapse does not occur. 

Detoxification can be accomplished either in an outpatient or inpatient setting. Outpatient programs are sometimes referred to as therapeutic communities.

An outpatient program may offer educational support, behavioral therapy, and medical services including medications to help ease the symptoms of withdrawal. Some programs may work with you over a longer period of time to address issues that could make it difficult for you to remain sober once you return home.

The important thing is your participation in an alcohol detoxification/treatment program has been recommended by your doctor, psychologist, and/or mental health professional and family members based on the severity of your drinking problem, individual health needs, and the available treatment resources in your area. Your primary care physician can assist you in finding a suitable facility within your community.

Are there Alternatives to Alcohol Detox?

According to the National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC), there are two alternative detoxification approaches:

Rapid or Ultra Rapid Withdrawal - This approach is designed for the individual who is intolerant of the adverse effects associated with alcohol withdrawal. As mentioned, medications including Anticonvulsants, Benzodiazepines, and Alcohol Inositol Uptake Inhibitors are used to eliminate withdrawal symptoms without necessarily inducing a total abstinence syndrome in alcohol-dependent patients.

It has resulted in decreased treatment costs for medical care and mental health services and more rapid return to social functioning than traditional approaches

Naltrexone Therapy - Naltrexone decreases cravings for alcohol; however, it does not havean immediate effect. This drug should not be used by people who are currently drinking alcohol, because it could induce a life-threatening reaction called "rebound" or "endogenous" hyperexcitability that can cause severe seizures

It is also important to point out that an individual's response to these procedures may vary. It may take more than one attempt for the withdrawal symptoms to subside; and in some cases, a patient may require long-term medical care before his/her condition stabilizes sufficiently to return home.

To learn more about detoxification and treatment options, contact a dedicated treatment provider today.

Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 

I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LPC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More


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