What to Expect From an Alcohol Detox

March 24, 2022 - Addiction Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Brooke McKenzie

What to expect in alcohol detox
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Despite being legal, alcohol is actually an incredibly dangerous drug. There’s a lot of potential for addiction and the process of withdrawing from alcohol is extremely difficult. In fact, alcohol is one of the only drugs that has potentially lethal side effects when you stop using it.

It’s also very difficult to quit, as alcohol is everywhere in our society. To maximize your chances of successfully stopping drinking, you should consider going to an alcohol rehab facility.

Withdrawing from alcohol can result in some fairly serious side effects, so it’s best to detox in the presence of medical professionals who can recognize the warning signs of any issues and treat them quickly. They might prescribe you with certain medications that’ll make the whole process of alcohol detox a lot easier.

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, here’s what you need to know about detox and withdrawal.

What is Alcohol Detox & Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal happens when anyone who’s an excessive drinker tries to quit drinking. When you drink, the alcohol is broken down by an enzyme in the liver. Through this process, your body gets rid of the alcohol you’ve consumed through your urine.

Not all the alcohol is metabolized in this way. Any that your body can’t get rid of is absorbed elsewhere; for example, in the brain.

When alcohol enters the brain, you’ll experience a sense of happiness and relaxation. When you drink in excess, you’ll start to experience signs of drunkenness, such as slurred speech and a loss of motor function.

Alcohol suppresses certain neurotransmitters in your brain, making you feel relaxed and at east after you drink. When you quit drinking, these neurotransmitters are no longer suppressed. This can lead to some very unpleasant side effects.

In some cases, the disruption of the brain’s neurotransmitters can have some dangerous effects. For example, you may develop delirium tremens; this is a serious condition and can even be life-threatening.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

When you give up alcohol after drinking for a long time, you’ll probably experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Despite it being a legal drug, withdrawing from alcohol is actually incredibly dangerous. Alcohol detox without medical supervision is not recommended, as it’s possible to die from giving up drinking.

Common withdrawal symptoms include things like sweating, nausea, and headaches. People going through alcohol withdrawal might struggle to keep food down. It’s important to pay special attention to food and water intake during alcohol withdrawal; some people might not eat or drink enough, making the symptoms worse.

When you’re going through withdrawal, your pupils might also become dilated and you might experience some other significant changes in your appearance. You might appear paler and gaunter than usual. You might experience a quicker heartbeat than normal and also suffer from involuntary shaking.

The Effects on Sleep

Your sleep will also be affected. Some people withdrawing from alcohol experience trouble sleeping, or even total insomnia.

You might also feel very fatigued during the day, even if you do manage to get some sleep. The sleep you do get will generally be of poor quality and you might experience vivid nightmares.

More Serious Symptoms

In severe cases, recovering alcoholics might experience seizures. These seizures can be extremely dangerous, so you should never try to withdraw from serious alcohol addiction without medical attention.

Of course, the withdrawal symptoms from alcohol go beyond just the physical side of things. You may also suffer from mental side effects.

You’ll likely suffer from feelings of both depression and anxiety as the alcohol starts to leave your system. For many people, this can lead to the desire to drink again. If you persevere, these symptoms will eventually subside.

When you’re withdrawing from alcohol, you might also experience extreme mood swings, going from one extreme mood to the other in a matter of seconds. This can make it incredibly difficult to keep living a normal life while you go through withdrawal.

Alcohol withdrawal can even impact your ability to think. Many recovering alcoholics report they feel confused and disorientated. In very rare cases, it’s possible to experience hallucinations.

How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?

How long alcohol detox can take differs from person to person. Generally speaking, you can expect the physical withdrawal symptoms to start appearing within eight hours of your last drink. While these symptoms can last for several weeks at a time, you can expect them to get less serious within a few days’ time.

Alcohol Detox Syptoms & Timeline

Here are the general stages you can expect to go through as you detox from alcohol:

8 to 12 hours

At this point, you’ll probably start to experience severe alcohol cravings, accompanied by headaches, nausea, and sweating. You might vomit due to nausea. This part is often described as the most difficult by people who’ve successfully recovered.

12 to 24 hours

You probably won’t have much of an appetite at this stage. You might start to feel anxious and could also have trouble sleeping. In extreme cases, you might have hallucinations.

24 to 48 hours

After the first 24 hours have passed, you might start to have extreme mood swings. You may find you have difficulty focusing on any tasks and you might experience feelings of confusion. If you’re going to have any seizures, you’ll probably start to experience them at this stage.

48 hours to 7 days

At this point, you’re past some of the worst symptoms. Now, you may feel depressed and tired.

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Detoxing on Your Own

You might be wondering how to safely detox from alcohol. Given how dangerous detoxing from alcohol can be, it’s not really recommended for you to try and detox on your own. But if you have an alcohol addiction that’s less severe, it might be possible for you to detox by yourself.

The key is to make sure you have a good environment to detox in. You should surround yourself only with people who are going to be supportive of you.

What to Do

During the withdrawal process, you need to make sure you look after yourself. You might not have much of an appetite, but your body will still need fuel to make it through detox. Make sure you eat enough of the right food and stay hydrated.

Once you’ve successfully weathered the storm and gotten past all of the withdrawal symptoms, you’ll need to abstain from drinking completely. Unfortunately, even one drink is all it takes to trigger an alcoholic into full-blown relapse. This might mean you’ll need to stop going to bars and associating with people who may encourage you to drink.

Most people who are alcoholics have some kind of mental disorder that they haven’t properly addressed. Many alcoholics might even be unaware that they have a problem.

This is why going through a proper rehab treatment program is important. Not only will you get clean from alcohol, but you’ll also get the psychological diagnosis and help you need to not relapse.

Many rehab programs include counseling sessions. These can be instrumental in helping you to stay clean. If you discount the psychological aspect of your recovery, it’s much more likely you’ll relapse at some point.

Inpatient Alcohol Detox Process with Medication-Assisted Treatment

For severe cases, you should always detox from alcohol with medical supervision. When your body is completely dependent on alcohol, it can be very dangerous (and sometimes deadly) to quit drinking completely.

Quitting cold turkey can result in problems with the heart, liver, and nervous system, and these issues can sometimes be life-threatening. That is why it’s always important to go through withdrawal in the presence of a qualified healthcare professional.

What to Expect From Medical Detox

Medically supervised alcohol detox is more than just getting the alcohol out of your system. Your symptoms will need to be monitored carefully to ensure your health is not in danger.

It’s usually best to undergo treatment for alcoholism on an inpatient basis. What this means is you’ll be living day and night at a rehabilitation facility.

This is a great option for severe alcoholics, as the staff can monitor your progress. If anything goes wrong, you can get help straight away.

During an inpatient withdrawal, staff will check things like your heart rate, blood pressure, and fluid levels to make sure things are progressing well. If they notice any problems, they might give you certain types of medication or help to rehydrate you with an IV drip.

Outpatient Detox

For some people, inpatient treatment isn’t an option. Some can’t afford it and aren’t able to be away from home for too long. If this applies to you, you could attend rehab on an outpatient basis.

With outpatient detox, you’ll regularly visit the rehab facility for treatment but continue to live at home. It’s a great option for alcohol detox if you can’t commit to an inpatient program.

Prevent Relapse

You should also take steps to prevent relapse. Many alcoholics will relapse once or several times before they’re able to completely kick the habit.

You can reduce the likelihood of relapse by attending counseling sessions. If you attend a rehab program, these may or may not be included in the process.

During counseling, you’ll experience both one-on-one sessions as well as group meetings. Engaging in these sessions can significantly boost your chances of successfully abstaining from drinking.

Medications You Might Be Prescribed

Since withdrawing from alcohol can have many bad side effects, you might be prescribed certain kinds of medication to help you recover. This may include:

  • Neurontin: This is a medication used to treat the seizures you might get from withdrawals.
  • Antabuse: This is used to discourage relapse. If you drink while on this medication, it’ll make you feel ill. The idea is that it’ll create a negative association with alcohol.
  • Campral: This is a medication that can help to reduce alcohol cravings. It achieves this by inhibiting certain neurotransmitters.
  • Revia: This is another medication that can reduce alcohol cravings and help to prevent relapse.

If you attempt to detox by yourself, not only is it incredibly dangerous, but you also won’t have access to these kinds of medications; the process will be much more unpleasant.

In order to have the best chance of successful withdrawal, you should try to check in at an inpatient rehab center. If you do try to detox from alcohol alone, you should absolutely seek medical attention if you suffer from any negative side effects. For example, if you experience shaking, seek help immediately.

The Road to Recovery

Alcohol detox can be a difficult and challenging time for everyone involved. A few hours after having your last drink, you’ll start to experience some of the withdrawal symptoms.

As the hours go on, the symptoms will start to get worse. After a day or so, you’ll experience the worst of the symptoms. At this point, you might feel a strong temptation to drink again.

If you manage to continue, you’ll find the worst of the symptoms start to subside. Once you’ve gotten through the first few days, you’re well on the road to making a full recovery. In order to maximize your chances of making it through the toughest first days of detoxing, you should try to book a place in an inpatient rehab facility.

Of course, this isn’t possible for everyone. You might have commitments with work or school, or you might not be able to afford it. If inpatient treatment isn’t an option, you should consider treatment on an outpatient basis. Whether you choose inpatient or outpatient rehab, you’ll have much better support for alcohol detox than you would if you tried to do it alone.

Are you ready to face your alcohol addiction and overcome it? Then get in touch with us today.

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Medical Reviewer:

Brooke McKenzie: Brooke McKenzie earned a bachelor’s degree and a Masters’s in Social Work, followed by earning her LCSW in 2009. She has worked in progressively more responsible positions in substance abuse since 2004, filling various roles from clinician to clinical director. Brooke spent the last 10 years as the Executive Director of a drug and alcohol facility, overseeing all levels of care including detox, residential, PHP, IOP and outpatient programming. Brooke’s determination for continuous growth and to combine her clinical experience with project management skills, led her to her most recent accomplishment of earning her MBA in Project Management from Seton Hill University. She places great emphasis on creating an atmosphere of professionalism and communication, whether that is with her colleagues, her patient’s families, outside organizations, or most significant – her patients. These assets continue to lead her success and growth in the field of behavioral health.