Alcoholism Detoxification

Medically Reviewed By Kayla Loibl | Last Edited : MARCH 01, 
| 1 Sources

Alcoholism Detoxification

Alcoholism detoxification is the initial phase of treatment that prepares the drinker for the subsequent rehabilitation steps necessary for life-long addiction recovery.

Since the drinker’s body has become reliant on alcohol for daily functioning, detoxification and withdrawal symptoms can be painful and difficult. This is why a trained healthcare professional must supervise the alcoholism detox process.

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal can produce a number of harsh and even life-threatening symptoms.  

Symptoms of alcohol addiction detox can begin as soon as six hours after an alcoholic stops drinking. Early withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Excessive sweating
  • Trembling hands
  • Mild anxiety 
  • Irritability 
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting

Between 12 and 24 hours after an alcoholic stops drinking, more trouble symptoms may begin, including:

  • Visual, auditory and/or tactile hallucinations (the alcoholic may see, hear or feel physical sensations that are not real)
  • Seizures (occasionally seizures begin earlier)

At this stage of the alcoholism detoxification process, the patient is usually aware that they are hallucinating and, while the hallucinations may be disturbing or even frightening, the patient knows they aren’t real.

Between 48 and 72 hours after the alcoholic stops drinking, delirium tremens (DTs) may begin. Symptoms usually peak five days after the alcoholic stops drinking and may include:

  • Severe anxiety
  • Profuse sweating
  • Rapid and irregular heartbeat 
  • High blood pressure
  • Severe trembling
  • Confusion 
  • Agitation 
  • Fever 
  • Visual hallucinations (which the patient often cannot distinguish from reality)
  • Seizures

DTs are fatal in one to five percent of all cases(1). This is a serious, life-threatening illness and not something one should attempt to go through without medical care and supervision. Therefore, safe and successful alcoholism detox may require inpatient care. An addiction specialist will determine the best approach based on the drinker’s health and addiction history.

Medically Supervised Alcoholism Detoxification

Because of the seriousness of potential complications of withdrawal, someone that has been drinking heavily on a regular basis for a long time should not stop drinking without talking to a doctor or other healthcare professional first.

While it is important to stop drinking, it is necessary to do so safely. Without medical supervision, the alcohol detoxification process can be dangerous, even deadly.

If an alcoholic begins experience severe symptoms of withdrawal and is not under medical supervision, go to the nearest emergency room right away or call 911. Complications of alcohol withdrawal are serious and can be fatal.

Alcoholics experiencing mild withdrawal symptoms may be treated on an outpatient basis, but should be assessed by a healthcare professional to ascertain the appropriate level of care. See a physician or other healthcare professional experienced in dealing with alcohol withdrawal for an assessment.

Those experiencing more severe symptoms will probably require inpatient care. Other factors that are considered include the individual's external support network, concurrent physical or mental health conditions, past rehabilitation efforts and recent alcohol consumption levels.

Those with a history of seizures or DTs and those that have been through the alcohol detoxification process multiple times are at greater risk for complications and inpatient care may be recommended for them, as well. Pregnant women may also need inpatient care just to be safe.

Depending on the patient’s specific history and requirements, medications such as anticonvulsants and antipsychotic drugs may be prescribed. In some circumstances, these medicines can enhance safety and lessen mental and physical discomfort during the alcohol detoxification process.

Medications can also be used to lower blood pressure, regulate heart rate and relieve nausea and vomiting. Intravenous fluids may be needed if vomiting causes dehydration.

The process of alcohol withdrawal can take up to two weeks, based on the drinker’s individual health and circumstances. It is a difficult and essential step in the recovery process and paves the way for successful addiction rehabilitation. 

After Alcoholism Detoxification

Detox and withdrawal is only the first step of a long recovery process. While inpatient treatment programs may begin offering group and individual counseling and other services right away, patients may have difficulty focusing while going through withdrawal symptoms.

After detox is complete, though, comes the process of resolving issues that led to alcoholism, learning new coping skills, repairing damaged relationships and otherwise coping with the results of what may have been a long-term drinking problem.

Relapse prevention will be an important part of an ongoing treatment program, since going through the withdrawal process multiple times increases the risk of serious complications like seizures and DTs.

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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(1) WebMD: Alcohol Withdrawal