Alcohol Detox Symptoms, Timeline, Medications and Treatment

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  1. Why is Detox Necessary for Recovery?
  2. Is Detox From Alcohol Dangerous?
  3. Medically-Assisted Detox and Withdrawal
  4. What to Expect During Detoxification
  5. Alcohol Detox Treatment
  6. Choose The Best Alcohol Detox Center

What is Detox?

Detox usually refers to the removal of alcohol from the body's systems and is normally the first step of treatment.

Generally speaking, withdrawal symptoms accompany alcohol detox, and there are approved pharmacotherapies that may help with alcohol detox/withdrawal in alcohol dependent persons.

What is Detox?

Alcohol detoxification (colloquially known as "detox") generally describes the process or period over which an individual begins to recover after the abrupt cessation of drinking.


The period of detox from alcohol can be quite dangerous, and withdrawal symptoms can be quite severe - for these reasons, a healthcare professional should be consulted prior to suddenly stopping alcohol use, especially if one has been a chronic, heavy drinker.

Why is Detox Necessary for Recovery?

Detoxing is critical to recovery from alcohol dependence because it is impossible to be abstinent from a substance without first removing it from the body. Detox occurs over time, and as the levels of alcohol get progressively lower in the body, withdrawal symptoms present themselves.
Typically, recovery is defined by abstinence from alcohol use (though there are very rare instances of "social" alcohol consumption being maintained), and detox is the first step in the process of becoming abstinent.

Is Detox From Alcohol Dangerous?

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As mentioned, detox from alcohol can actually be dangerous, unlike some other substances of abuse. Outside of the typical withdrawal symptoms, detox from alcohol can cause seizures or a syndrome known as delirium tremens.

Delirium tremens is a condition that is considered severe, and can be fatal if not treated immediately and properly.

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Delirium tremens produces symptoms that occur as the result of excitotoxicity of the brain, which means that there is excessive neurotransmitter activity (particularly rebound glutamate activity) and this causes the brain to become hyperactive.

Symptoms include:

  • Confusion.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Fever.
  • Hypertension.
  • Tachycardia.
  • Tremors.
  • Seizures.

Find Help Fast Talk to others who have gone through this struggle. The treatment of choice for delirium tremens is benzodiazepines, which reduce the risk of seizures and help with the anxiety associated with the condition.

However, there is a catch to using benzodiazepines as a treatment for alcohol withdrawal - they have high abuse potential, so health care professionals make a thorough assessment before recommending ongoing benzodiazepine treatment for alcohol detox.

Antipsychotics may also be used for extreme cases of hallucinations.

If you are worried about your own or a loved one's alcohol detox, and fear that delirium tremens is a possibility, please call 1-888-993-3112Who Answers? to speak with a treatment support staff member today for help finding the right detox options for you and your loved one.

Why Detoxing at Home Can Be Harmful

Especially true for alcohol, detoxing at the home can indeed be very harmful. Because of the sudden onset of delirium tremens, alcohol detox can go from bad to worse very quickly. Even if you are interested in detoxing at home consult with
your healthcare provider first to see if you are a good candidate for outpatient detox. Sometimes, a simple medical history can help a physician decide if you should be safe to detox from alcohol at home or not.

Medically-Assisted Detox and Withdrawal

Prescription Medication IconDuring alcohol detox, sedative medications such as benzodiazepines or barbiturates may be used to relieve and control withdrawal symptoms, and help prevent seizures.

Depending upon the degree of severity, antipsychotics such as haloperidol may be used to cope with hallucinations.

However, since antipsychotics are pro convulsants--meaning that they can cause epileptic seizures or convulsions--their use is carefully monitored and an extensive risk/benefit analysis is conducted prior to administration.

In general, patients with severe withdrawal symptoms during detox are often kept pharmacologically sedated to minimize the risk of agitation and seizures.

Benzodiazepines may even be prescribed for outpatient detox to patients at low risk of seizures or to help patients with withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety.

What to Expect During Detoxification

Alcohol detox begins after the user takes their last drink, and withdrawal symptoms often appear within 6 to 12 hours after cessation of drinking.

Withdrawal symptom severity depends upon the degree of dependence on alcohol in the user. Frequent heavy use will usually be accompanied by more severe withdrawal symptoms while light, infrequent use will have less severe symptoms.

During the beginning of detox, the following symptoms may occur:

  • Sweating.
  • Nausea/vomiting.
  • Headaches.
  • Anxiety
  • Tremors.

Users going through alcohol detox may also experience hallucinations during the first 24 hours--these hallucinations are different from those experienced during delirium tremens. Seizures are also possible during detox, and can occur between the first 24 and 48 hours after drinking cessation.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can be a complication of alcoholism in general, and its neurologic signs can complicate acute alcohol withdrawal. It is caused due to a thiamine (Vitamin B1) deficiency and is characterized by:

  • Confusion.
  • Delirium.
  • Abnormal gait.

How Long Does Detox Last?

Alcohol detox usually lasts around 72 hours; however, withdrawal symptoms and delirium tremens may last anywhere from one to several weeks.

Duration of detox depends on many factors, including:

  • Severity of dependence.
  • Age.
  • Co-occurring medical or mental health conditions.
  • History of detox (how many times a person has gone through detox).
  • History of delirium tremens and/or seizures in the past with alcohol detox.

Alcohol Detox Treatment

Alcohol detox can occur in both inpatient and outpatient settings. The setting you choose should depend both on your lifestyle and your health care provider's advice.

  • Outpatient Treatment

    Outpatient treatment is normally safe for patients who have mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms and a moderate severity of dependence. Even though detox occurs in the patient's home, medical staff oversees the detox through contact with the patient and periodic clinic visits as needed.

  • Inpatient Detox

    Inpatient detox is often indicated for people who have experienced:

    • Multiple detoxifications in the past.
    • Severe withdrawal symptoms.
    • Co-occurring medical and mental health conditions.
    • A history of seizures/delirium tremens.

Regardless of the treatment setting, medications can be prescribed to help relieve withdrawal symptoms (such as anti-nausea medications) or prevent seizures (benzodiazepines / barbiturates).

Choose The Best Alcohol Detox Center

There are several factors to keep in mind when choosing the best alcohol detox center:

  • While considering inpatient detox, make sure the setting is calm, one where you feel invited and the staff is knowledgeable and caring. You should feel comfortable opening up to the staff, and keeping them informed of your progress or about problems you are experiencing.
  • Sometimes people find that a neutral environment (that is, one that is unfamiliar to them and free from cues that may induce cravings) is best for their recovery.

  • The presence of a strong support network at home may make it easier for you to detox on an outpatient basis.
  • Cost is another factor to keep in mind, inpatient options are usually far more expensive than outpatient settings; however, depending upon the situation, health care insurance may cover some of the costs associated with inpatient detox, especially for high-risk patients.

For help choosing the right detox environment for you or a loved one, please call 1-888-993-3112Who Answers? today to speak with a treatment support specialist who will guide you through the alcohol detoxification options available in your area.

If you’d like to know whether your insurance may cover the full or partial cost of substance abuse rehabilitation programs at one of American Addiction Centers’ various rehab centers across the states, simply fill in your information in the form below.

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