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Alcohol Detox: Symptoms and Treatments

Author: Thomas Roth

Last Updated: 6/04/2023

Alcohol detox is defined as a series of symptoms that occur when someone who is addicted to alcohol attempts to stop drinking. Alcohol is widely consumed across the world. In a recreational sense, alcohol, when used responsibly by adults, can be treated as a beneficial tonic. However, if abused, alcohol becomes a major cause of preventable death in most countries. As dangerous as it can be physically, it is just as dangerous psychologically. Unfortunately, the effects of alcohol are addicting and can lead to alcohol use disorder, and alcohol dependency. When a person becomes dependent on alcohol, only through detoxification, can the journey to rehabilitation and recovery commence. 

This article will describe the symptoms related to alcohol detox, the available treatments, and the general facts about how long alcohol detoxification takes as well as what some of the major alcohol detox programs are. 

What Is Alcohol Detox?

Alcohol detoxification is widely considered the first step toward ending a person’s addiction to alcohol. To truly treat acute alcoholism, a person who is addicted to alcohol has to accept that detoxification will have to happen, as it is the body’s way to flush the alcohol out of the system. Without physical detoxification, the body cannot recover from an extended period of excessive drinking. 

As a depressant, alcohol is a substance that the body slowly begins to rely on the more frequently it is consumed. The more the body, and in many ways the mind, come to depend on alcohol, the more likely it is that the detoxification process will be all the more grueling and challenging. One example of how a person begins to rely on alcohol is when the mind starts to rely on alcohol for producing a certain mental stimulus which a person that is not addicted to alcohol, or any other drug for that matter, is typically able to produce on their own. When the mind is constantly receiving the chemical from alcohol, both the mind and the body begin to require alcohol to feel normal. 

At this point, alcohol use disorder has become a serious, and potentially life-threatening, condition. When a person has reached this point, then they might experience, and usually do experience, withdrawal symptoms from quitting drinking alcohol. Some minor withdrawal symptoms include nausea and headache, while the more severe symptoms ranging from dizziness, fever, irregular heartbeat, and even hallucinations. These are widely considered to be the start of alcohol detox, however, the symptoms, especially if left untreated, are not confined to what is described above. A person’s detoxification experience is all dependent upon how much alcohol they were using and for how long their use persisted. 

The science surrounding alcohol detox is mostly concerned with how alcohol withdrawal arises because it is a function of the various changes in brain activity that are caused by drinking alcohol. Two specific neurochemicals contribute to each of the major short-term effects of drinking and also in the way that alcohol withdrawal arises: when a person drinks alcohol the functioning of GABA receptors is changed.

The way the brain reacts is by lowering how much Gaba is being released while raising how glutamine signaling occurs to compensate for how alcohol alters the levels artificially. In simpler terms, this is how tolerance is developed, so that the more a person drinks, the greater their tolerance, and the greater their chance to experience withdrawal during the detoxification process. 

What Are The Symptoms of Alcohol Detox? 

A whole host of physiological symptoms can arise from alcohol detox at any given time. Some medical professionals have defined alcohol detox as Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome. Classified as a multitude of symptoms that occur when an individual who has become dependent on alcohol suddenly ceases consuming alcohol, or even when a person just stops drinking as much as they were before, Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome comes with a wide variety of symptoms both physical and psychological.

  1. Headaches
  2. Anxiety
  3. Tremors
  4. Insomnia
  5. Heart Palpitations
  6. Hallucinations
  7. Seizures 

These are the Common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal in the order of severity.

What is the Alcohol Detox Timeline?

The alcohol detox timeline does differ from one individual to the next. One of the reasons for this is the person’s history of drinking alcohol, but also a variety of physical and mental factors which differ from one person to the next. It’s vital to understand that everyone’s experience detoxing from alcohol is not the same across the board, but that being said, certain patterns arise which do make a timeline. An organization that is called The American Academy of Family Physicians outlines 3 potential stages that a person in withdrawal might experience. They are described as occurring in three particular stages. 

  1. Stage One: Considered the mildest of the three stages of alcohol withdrawal syndrome, stage one consists of symptoms such as nausea, headaches, anxiety, insomnia, heart palpitations, gastrointestinal disturbances, and heart palpitations. 
  2. Stage Two: Considered the moderately severe stage of the three stages of alcohol withdrawal syndrome, stage two is defined by the symptoms that are identified as being part of Stage One with the addition of such symptoms as increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, mild hyperthermia, rapid abnormal breathing, and confusion. 
  3. Stage Three: Considered the most severe of the three stages of alcohol withdrawal syndrome, symptoms of stage three range from all symptoms of stages one and two with the added symptoms of visual and auditory hallucinations, seizures, disorientation, and an impaired ability to pay attention. 

For people who have acute alcohol use disorder, symptoms of stage one can come on anywhere from six to twelve hours after a person has their last drink. These symptoms include any combination of mild anxiety, headache, insomnia, stomach pain, nausea, and small tremors. 

Symptoms of stage two manifest themselves usually twenty-four hours after a person has their last drink. Following the effects of stage one, stage two occurs with some people beginning to experience visual, auditory, or physical hallucinations. Known as tactile hallucinations, any of these can be extremely unsettling, as well as potentially dangerous, if a person who is undergoing the detoxification process is not being observed. There is a potential for people undergoing stage two to hurt themselves in the process of experiencing such hallucinations. 

Within seventy-two hours after a person’s last drink, the effects of stage three commence. These usually take the form of seizure risks, which can be very dangerous to an individual experiencing them if that person is left unattended, as well as withdrawal delirium, which can lead to a person losing their sense of self entirely. Apart from close monitoring, seizure prophylaxis is recommended to help an individual manage their symptoms. 

Of course, this entire timeline is dependent on an individual’s health facts and the amount of alcohol they were drinking before they started to detox, as well as the time they spent drinking, but in general, the timeline is mostly accurate. It is possible, albeit rare, that some symptoms of alcohol withdrawal symptoms persist after the three days timeline described above, with medical professionals recording instances where changes in mood, sleep disturbances, and fatigue last for extended periods; even months. However, there should still be optimism. With professional help, medicine, and withdrawal management services, most people fully recover from the physical ailments and symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal disorder. 

How Long Does it Take To Detox From Alcohol? 

While the time it takes to detox from alcohol is dependent upon the age, weight, and drinking history of the individual, as well as other factors, the time it takes to detox from alcohol can be three days to several weeks. The most persistent withdrawal symptoms tend to last for a month or more. While the physical symptoms, such as delirium tremens, may only reach the peak of intensity within a matter of days, there is potential for lingering side effects, mostly psychological, like feelings of anxiety, depression, and exhaustion, which can last for months. 

What Are the Health Benefits of Alcohol Detox?

The truth of alcohol abuse disorder is that continued abuse of alcohol can lead to severe, and sometimes irreversible, damage to the brain, cardiovascular system, and the liver. The only way to stop this level of damage is by quitting drinking alcohol entirely. For individuals who have developed alcoholism, or alcohol addiction, this may seem like a difficult task. However, even though the physical symptoms of alcohol use disorder are debilitating, they are a short-term cost of a long-term gain. 

Alcohol is inherently inflammatory, which is continued abuse of alcohol over multiple years can severely damage the body in ways that cannot be reversed unless a person stops drinking alcohol. When a person does stop drinking, however, the health benefits of quitting alcohol are listed below.

  1. Improved skin health: better-looking skin is a possibility when a person stops drinking. Consuming alcohol can lead to such symptoms as dry skin, broken capillaries, jaundice, and even reduced collagen levels, which results in loose or baggy skin. Many individuals who quit drinking note an improved difference in such skin issues as inflammation goes down and the body heals. 
  2. Improved sleep: People with alcohol use disorder periodically report poor sleep, and that’s mostly because alcohol interferes with reaching REM and proper sleep cycles, challenging the body’s ability to fall and stay asleep. However, as is true with most of the health benefits that occur after quitting drinking, the positive benefits continue to improve as time passes. 
  3. Healthier weight: Alcohol is unhealthy for the digestive system as well. Binge drinking, which is common for people with alcohol use disorder, can add hundreds of extra calories to a single day of food and beverage consumption. As alcohol is also filled with sugar, it robs the body of essential nutrients and also derails the metabolism. 
  4. Better mental health: Alcohol use disorder is directly tied to mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and even schizophrenia. People sometimes turn to alcohol as an attempt to self-medicate, without knowing that drinking alcohol damages the mind more and leads to more mental health complications. Allowing the mind to heal without the damage of alcohol can pay large dividends towards managing a mental illness. It is certainly better for mental health than alcohol abuse. 
  5. Improved immunity: The immune system is the body’s way of producing white blood cells to fend off infection. Alcohol damages the immune system, compromising the body’s natural method of creating white blood cells. This results in a higher percentage of more severe illnesses for individuals who have become dependent on alcohol or even those who regularly binge drink but do not necessarily fulfill the diagnosis of alcohol use disorder.

What Are The Health Risks of Alcohol Detox?

The health risks of alcohol detox vary from the short to the long term. What’s most important to know is that the health risks of an alcohol detox diminish significantly if the detox is monitored by medical professionals. This is why a rehabilitation center can be extremely beneficial for people who are willing and able to commit themselves to a professional detoxification process. 

That being said, most doctors agree that anyone who can be diagnosed as suffering from alcohol use disorder must observe caution when detoxing. First and foremost, quitting “cold turkey” for someone who has abused alcohol for a significant period of years can be disastrous, especially without the proper medical attention. The health risks of such an undertaking have to do mostly with the nervous system attempting to readjust to the lack of alcohol entering the body. Rapid heart rate, higher temperature, nervousness, and depression, are all legitimate health risks. 

Additionally, in severe cases, delirium tremens is a potentially significant health risk. Delirium tremens, as described above, results in seizures, hallucinations, and severe nausea. If electrolyte levels are not replenished during a period when a person with a serious case of alcoholism is attempting to detox, then the results can prove disastrous, even fatal, including the threat of cardiac complications. Low levels of phosphate, known as hypophosphatemia, do carry the risk of coma, and the cessation of normally functioning breathing. 

Another condition, alcohol ketoacidosis, is also a possible threat. Acting on the body in a similar way to diabetes, it is caused by alcohol’s impact on the pancreas. As the body’s ability to produce insulin naturally is compromised, the effects of alcohol ketoacidosis can prove fatal. 

Taking all of this information into consideration, alcohol detox is still a beneficial avenue, as all of these health risks can be curtailed by the proper medication, nutrition, and supervision during the withdrawal process. Once the body grows accustomed to, and recovers from, the constant inclusion of alcohol in the system, then a certain level of normalcy and homeostasis can be achieved. The potential health risks of an alcohol detox should not dissuade people suffering from alcohol use disorder from committing to rehabilitation. With the proper professional help, the health risks can be mitigated, and the health benefits can be realized. 

What Medication Is Used For Alcohol Detox? 

During the process of alcohol detox, which is usually, at least when it comes to the most extreme symptoms, experienced over a relatively short term, three drugs tend to be used to alleviate the symptoms.

  1. Valium: Also known as diazepam, Valium is a benzodiazepine that acts as a sedative, calming the central nervous system and helping to prevent seizures and delirium tremens.  
  2. Risperdal: An antipsychotic, Risperdal can be effective in reducing the effects of psychosis. Commonly used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dementia, and other psychotic issues, Risperdal can calm the mind and stop hallucinations, as well as treat the anxiety and agitation that some patients do experience during the physical and mental ordeal of the detox process. 
  3. Buprenorphine: While it is mostly used to treat people who are detoxing from opiates, Buprenorphine is sometimes used successfully, in a professional medical detox setting, as medication-assisted treatment. A small amount of buprenorphine can curtain some of the physical ailments that occur when the body is detoxing from alcohol and calm the body during the process. 

While these drugs have proved effective, it is essential to note that they can be abused as well, and can only be used to their fullest potential in the safety of a controlled environment such as a rehabilitation center where a patient will be overseen by medical professionals. Otherwise, these powerful drugs can prove to be dangerous in their own right, especially if misused or abused. 

What is the Treatment for Alcohol Detox? 

Due to the fact that there is a wide spectrum of symptoms that may arise when an individual is experiencing alcohol detox, treatment protocol differs from one individual to the next. For this explanation, the treatment that will be outlined is performed by medical professionals. Being observed by a medical professional is a key component of ensuring a safe withdrawal process. 

Benzodiazepines are a typical medication that may be used to sedate the body during the hours and days in which the effects of withdrawal are most severe. There are other medications of note which are administered, including beta-blockers, haloperidol, and clonidine, as they are considered adjuncts to benzodiazepine and thus are helpful in the treatment of certain symptoms. 

What’s most important to understand about the treatment of alcohol detox is that there are three key outcomes that medical professionals aim for when treating alcohol withdrawal disorder. These three goals of treatment are to provide a safe withdrawal to enable an individual to live without alcohol, to provide a humane withdrawal, so an individual can maintain their dignity through the challenging process, and also prepare an individual for their ongoing fight with the substance after the successful detoxification process. 

Treatment for alcohol detox can prove extremely successful for those individuals who have decided to quit drinking for good, and under the care of medical professionals in a rehabilitative setting, these treatments have proved successful. 

How Do Alcohol Detox Programs Work? 

Alcohol detox programs take into consideration the reality that attempting to cut alcohol out of a person’s life who has developed alcohol use disorder can not only be extremely difficult but very dangerous as well. Detox programs seek to map out the process of withdrawal to provide safety, ease the physical challenges, and also to avoid relapse. 

Alcohol detox and rehab programs in a professional rehabilitation setting begin with an intake exam. Intake exams seek to assess the severity of a person’s addiction to alcohol and also an assessment of their physical and mental health. After the intake exam, what follows is generally what’s known as detox support, where medical professionals will prescribe medicine that seeks to aid in the detoxification process and reduce withdrawal levels. 

There are two distinct differences between most detox programs and they come with two different options. Inpatient detox occurs when an individual lives in a hospital, detox clinic, or rehab center. Inpatient detox programs ensure constant care and observation during the rehabilitation process. Outpatient detox differs in that a person who is detoxing from alcohol still resides at home, but checks in with their doctor every day to receive certain medications and to be observed less regularly, but still in a consistent fashion. 

Inpatient and outpatient both have proven to work, and as there are a variety of factors that differ from one individual’s experience with withdrawal to the next, it is important for every person considering to detox from alcohol to speak to their doctor before starting any program, so that the right choice for them can be determined. 

What Are the Foods to Eat While on Alcohol Detox? 

When it comes to food, what’s most important to consider when detoxing from alcohol is that nutrition becomes even more integral than normal as the body will be weakened from the withdrawal process. Because diet plays such an important role, foods that are high in fiber, such as leafy vegetables and fresh fruit, do a great job of steadying out blood sugar and regulating levels of hunger. 

Not just that, foods that are rich in Vitamin B are important, as are low-fat proteins and whole grains. Consider brown rice, salmon, poultry, and eggs as high-quality sources of protein and grains. These are some of the best types of food to eat when detoxing from alcohol.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential, and hydration is also key for detoxing from alcohol, as diarrhea, sweating, and vomiting can all lead to dehydration, which can prove very dangerous if not treated with a large volume of fluids. 

Is Alcohol Detox Painful? 

Although symptoms of alcohol detox differ from one person to the next, there is no hiding the fact that alcohol detox can be very painful. The more addicted the body is to alcohol, the worse the symptoms will be, so it is important to speak to a medical professional to assess the level of severity of certain symptoms. If professional inpatient rehabilitation is recommended, then that is probably a safe choice to mitigate the potentially painful symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. 

Is Alcohol Detox Safe? 

There is no simple answer to this question, but alcohol use disorder is more dangerous than alcohol detox. If an individual with alcohol use disorder continues to abuse alcohol throughout their life, then it is likely that they will encounter more dangers than will ever arise from alcohol detox. Yes, in the short term, alcohol detox can be dangerous, but if overseen by medical professionals, in a controlled environment, even the most severe of alcohol detoxifications can be very safe. Alcohol detox is certainly safer than a lifetime of alcoholism. 

Is It Bad to Drink Alcohol While Detoxing? 

While it might seem reasonable to assume that lowering one’s intake of alcohol over an extended period might be a suitable way to wean oneself off alcohol, the reality is that it is bad to drink alcohol while detoxing. Not only is a true detox only attainable by abstaining from using alcohol completely, but the chances of relapse are also much higher for an individual who still has alcohol in the system while attempting to detox. This is why seeking out professional help during the detoxification process is so important. Treatment from professionals provides assistance that makes abstaining from having drinks of alcohol while detoxing a much easier process.