Alcohol Detox

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Whether your addiction is mild or severe, withdrawal symptoms are a part of the detoxification process for everyone seeking to overcome alcohol addiction. For some, detox may be accompanied by mild symptoms that are easily managed without significant medical assistance or intervention. However, for others, the withdrawal process can bring about dangerous and even fatal symptoms and complications. Some of the more intense symptoms related to detox can quickly become unmanageable when detoxing alone, leading to relapse or an acute medical emergency. This is especially true when detoxing from alcohol and one of the key reasons it is often unsafe and unsuccessful to “cold turkey” detox from alcohol.

The benefits of a medically assisted alcohol detox program

At an addiction treatment center where medically assisted detox is provided, each person seeking treatment can expect full medical supervision throughout the detox process. Depending on the program, this may include the administration of medication to help manage and reduce the intensity of withdrawal symptoms. During medically supervised (assisted) detox, a highly trained team of medical professionals will continually monitor vitals (including blood pressure, temperature, heart rate, and breathing) to ensure ongoing safety and reduce the chances of an acute medical emergency.

The goal of a medically assisted alcohol detox program, often called a medical detox, is to provide holistic guidance and support. Detox is both a physical and emotional challenge. Members of your addiction treatment team will provide assistance with mental and physical stability while providing emotional and nutritional support during the earliest and most challenging days of treatment. Once detox is complete, patients will transition to an addiction treatment program that includes therapy, addiction education, and support while working towards sobriety and recovery.

When to Seek Help to Overcome Alcohol Addiction

No one should detox from alcohol alone. As part of a comprehensive, evidence-based addiction treatment program, a medically supervised detox program provides the greatest opportunity for treatment success. In a medically supervised detox setting where adequate treatment options, therapy models, and highly trained staff are available for ongoing support, the detox process can be more comfortable and successful than would be feasible when trying to "cold turkey" the detox process.

Detox itself is not a standalone addiction treatment. It is the first step on a journey to alcohol addiction recovery. Detox helps cleanse the body and clear the mind from the effects of alcohol, allowing you to pursue and complete your addiction treatment program without the distractions of cravings and other challenges that often lead to relapse. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol addiction, don't wait to seek treatment. The longer one is addicted to alcohol, the more complex and potentially dangerous detox can be. If you are ready to begin your journey to sobriety, use our online treatment facility locator to find an alcohol detox and treatment center near you.

What to Expect During Alcohol Detox

Choosing to seek addiction treatment at a professional alcohol treatment center where medically assisted detox is available provides the best opportunity for treatment success. Alcohol detox is often the first and the most challenging part of alcohol addiction recovery. Detox is the process required to adequately prepare for a more prolonged and more intensive treatment program. Detox is often performed in an inpatient alcohol detox center to ensure 24/7 support and monitoring throughout.

The alcohol detox process involves someone choosing to stop drinking alcohol. During detox, the body learns how to function without alcohol in its system. For many, the detox process can be scary, unpleasant, and sometimes dangerous as it requires the person to experience a full range of withdrawal symptoms. While drinking, the body and brain become accustomed to functioning with a certain amount of an addictive substance in the body. When the substance levels get too low, cravings occur as the body or brain demands more, eventually resulting in the addict believing they need substances to function. During detox, the body is not getting these substances, no matter how intense the cravings may be.

The intensity and severity of your withdrawal symptoms will depend on various factors, including the severity of your addiction. The longer you have been drinking or the more you drink, the more prolonged and more intense your withdrawal symptoms will be. Withdrawal symptoms from alcohol are often the opposite effects you can expect when drinking. Because alcohol is a depressant, it relaxes and slows functions in the body and within the central nervous system (the brain and related systems). When someone suddenly stops consuming alcohol, they often experience withdrawal symptoms that “speed up” previously slowed processes.

Understanding Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol addiction touches the lives of millions of Americans each year. Alcoholism (or an alcohol use disorder) is often referred to as a family disease because the effects of addiction hurt not only the addict but also their loved ones and friends. Addiction is a mental disorder that results in the overwhelming compulsion to repeatedly use substances or engage in behaviors regardless of known harmful consequences. Addictions are responsible for the dissolution of marriages, the loss of friendships, unemployment, and a wide variety of adverse medical effects.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) categorizes alcohol dependence disorders as mild, moderate, or severe. Regardless of severity, problem drinking comes in many forms, including binge drinking, alcohol abuse, and alcohol dependence (alcoholism). Each is different from the next in various ways, including how much or how often you drink and how drinking impacts your physical and psychological health.

Binge Drinking

A common and dangerous problem for teens and adults alike is binge drinking. Binge drinking is best defined as consuming enough alcohol to bring your blood alcohol concentration to 0.08% in one sitting. In most cases, this means five or more drinks for males (four or more for females). In most cases, a "sitting" is narrowed to a window of two hours or less as the body does not have adequate time to process the alcohol taken into the system during such a short window. Most people who engage in binge drinking occasionally do not have a severe alcohol use disorder. However, frequent binge drinking can increase one's risk for significant physical and psychological health impacts.

Alcohol Abuse

When drinking to excess has become common practice despite the negative consequences it has on your day-to-day life and relationships, occasional problematic drinking has likely evolved into alcohol abuse. Drinking is considered alcohol abuse when someone continues to drink regardless of poor performance at work or school, neglect of responsibilities, legal troubles (such as DWI or more severe issues), new or worsening physical or mental health effects, or loss of relationships.

Someone who struggles with alcohol abuse often uses alcohol as a way to "feel good" or to reduce stress. As their drinking continues, the amount of alcohol needed to achieve desired results also increases. This process, known as tolerance, dramatically increases one's risk for developing an alcohol use disorder (alcoholism). If you notice your drinking is causing (or has caused) significant problems in other areas of your life, including social, legal, and personal, yet you choose not to or cannot stop drinking, it is time to seek professional help in overcoming alcohol addiction.

Alcohol Dependence (Alcohol Addiction)

At this stage, alcohol is no longer consumed just for pleasure. Alcohol addiction is characterized by a physical and psychological need to drink. Once an alcohol addiction has developed, the physical cravings for alcohol are often so intense and debilitating. Consequently, the addict is drinking almost constantly to alleviate the physical discomfort associated with not having alcohol in their system. Also, at this stage, if you try to reduce or stop drinking, you will experience withdrawal symptoms which can be dangerous if you try to stop drinking without the support and guidance of a professional addiction treatment team.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition) provides a list of eleven criteria to help mental health and medical professionals accurately diagnose the presence and severity of alcohol addiction (alcohol use disorder). It is not necessary to experience all eleven to meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol addiction. Generally, two or three signs identify a mild alcohol use disorder; four or five are considered moderate, and six or more are considered severe, and seeking treatment at an alcohol addiction rehab provides the safest way to detox and get sober.

Alcohol Abuse Statistics

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), alcohol is one of the most widely abused substances in the United States. Each year, alcohol addiction and alcohol-related causes are responsible for one out of every twenty deaths that occur worldwide. It is estimated that nearly 90,000 people in the United States lose their lives to alcohol-related causes each year. Of those, more than 30,000 die from the effects of alcohol poisoning.

The same report estimates that nearly 8% of American adults (over 17 million people) have an alcohol use disorder, yet fewer than 7% will ever seek or receive potentially lifesaving addiction treatment. Additionally, another 900,000 adolescents and teens between ages 12 and 17 meet the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder. One of the leading causes of alcohol addiction in the United States is a family history of problem drinking. It is estimated as many as half of the American adults with a substance use disorder have a first-degree relative with a history of alcoholism or alcohol-related disorders.

Alcohol Withdrawal and the Need for Detox

Long-term alcohol use and abuse can result in significant physical and physical health difficulties. Because addiction is a disease unique to the individual, it is essential to note that everyone who chooses to seek help overcoming alcohol abuse will likely experience withdrawal differently. Although everyone will inevitably experience withdrawal symptoms, the intensity and severity of their symptoms will depend on various factors, including the severity of your addiction, how often you drink, how much you drink, and your history with addiction treatment and relapse.

The Detox Timeline

Withdrawal symptoms will vary from person to person, but in most cases, the withdrawal timeline occurs in three stages. The first stage begins within six hours after your last drink and lasts for approximately twelve hours. During this stage, people often experience anxiety, headaches, stomach problems, nausea, appetite changes, and difficulties sleeping.

Beginning approximately twelve hours after your last drink, withdrawal escalates to stage two. Stage two lasts for approximately thirty-six hours ending about two days after your last drink. During stage two, withdrawal symptoms become more severe and challenging to manage without addiction treatment support. In addition to previously mentioned symptoms, other symptoms that may develop include seizures and hallucinations.

The final stage of withdrawal or stage three is the most dangerous stage. Some of the withdrawal symptoms that occur during this stage can be life-threatening if immediate medical intervention is not available, underscoring the importance of detoxing at a treatment facility where medically assisted detox is available. Stage three begins approximately forty-eight hours after your last drink and ends (usually) one to two days later. Common symptoms that are part of stage three include elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, sweating, confusion, auditory hallucinations, delirium tremens (DTs), and even death.

A Word About Delirium Tremens

The shaking and tremors experienced by someone undergoing detox are often known as delirium tremens or DTs. Delirium tremens are often present in individuals suffering from extreme alcohol withdrawal. Unfortunately, they can result in seizures, making them one of the more life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. DTs are, unfortunately, relatively common. Some statistics show they occur in approximately one out of every twenty cases of alcohol withdrawal. They are most common among those who are severely addicted to alcohol and have experienced alcohol withdrawal in the past.

DTs usually begin within two to three days after an individual stops drinking. If someone chooses to undergo detox without medical supervision (cold turkey) and begins to exhibit signs of delirium tremens, it is essential to get medical help immediately. Symptoms of delirium tremens include more than just shaking and trembling. Some of the most common symptoms are fatigue, fever, hallucinations, intense confusion, and fever. In addition, severe and life-threatening seizures can also occur.