What is Alcohol Detox?
The alcohol detox stage is the first step in treating alcoholism. During this time, alcohol is completely flushed from your body. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms typically subside within approximately one to two weeks after starting detox from alcohol. However, this could take longer depending on the severity of your alcohol use disorder (AUD) . From there, you will focus on other aspects of the recovery process, such as therapies, counseling sessions, and support options.
Alcohol is a depressant that your body begins to rely on over the course of months and years of drinking. Your brain eventually stops producing certain chemicals that it receives from alcohol, becoming dependent on the drug. That’s why when you quit drinking, it takes time for your body to adjust. This is what causes alcohol withdrawal symptoms such as headache, fever, nausea, irregular heartbeat, and hallucinations.
Some individuals are apprehensive about quitting drinking because they’re nervous about the withdrawal symptoms experienced while detoxing from alcohol. While some people may only be affected by minor symptoms and effects of alcoholism, others may face extreme pain. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can change quickly and aggressively, which is why it’s important to detox from alcohol under the care of medical professionals. Treatment professionals at an inpatient alcohol rehab facility will be able to help you manage your pain with medication-assisted treatment (MAT). This allows you to focus on your recovery and get better.
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What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?
Every year more than one and a half million people in the United States either enter alcoholism treatment or are admitted to a general hospital because of medical consequences resulting from alcohol dependence . These patients, as well as a substantial number of other people who stop drinking without seeking professional treatment, experience the effects of alcohol withdrawal.
Heavy drinkers who suddenly decrease their alcohol consumption or abstain completely may experience the effects of alcohol withdrawal. Signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can include, among others, mild to moderate tremors, irritability, anxiety, or agitation. The most severe withdrawal manifestations include delirium tremens, hallucinations, and seizures. These manifestations result from alcohol-induced imbalances in the brain chemistry that cause excessive neuronal activity if the alcohol is withheld.
Managing the effects of alcohol withdrawal includes a thorough assessment of the severity of the patient’s symptoms and of any complicating conditions, as well as treatment of the withdrawal symptoms with pharmacological and nonpharmacological approaches . Treatment can occur in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Recognition and treatment of withdrawal can represent a first step in the patient’s recovery process.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Though alcohol withdrawal symptoms typically begin within eight hours after your last drink, you may not experience any until several days later. These symptoms tend to spike around 24 to 72 hours after your last drink, though continued severe and or milder ones may persist for much longer in some people. However, in more intense cases, withdrawal effects may last much longer and can persist for multiple weeks.
Common symptoms include:
- Feeling anxious or nervous
- Feeling irritable
- Feeling depressed
- Feeling wiped out and tired
- Mood swings
- Not being able to think clearly
- Having nightmares
- Dilated pupils
- Difficulty sleeping
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Appetite loss
- Faster heart rate
- Pale skin
Severe Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
One of the most severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal is called delirium tremens, or “the DTs.” About 3% to 5% of people who withdraw from heavy drinking experience delirium tremens. This condition can become fatal if it’s left untreated, so if you or a loved one show any symptoms of the DTs, seek emergency treatment because symptoms can get worse.
Symptoms of delirium tremens include:
- Extreme agitation
- Extreme confusion
- Hallucinations (feeling, seeing, or hearing things that aren’t there)
- High blood pressure
Hospitals and alcohol detox centers have experienced staff familiar with these symptoms and have the tools to provide appropriate treatment.
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Alcohol Detox Timeline
How long does It take to detox from alcohol? During the detoxification process, the body metabolizes remaining alcohol out of its system following a person’s last drink. It is the first stage of recovery from substance use disorder, and it allows a person to begin treatment safely and comfortably with a clear system. The timeline of detoxing from alcohol is different for everyone, but the following is an overview of what people usually experience when they go through withdrawal:
6-12 Hours of Detox from Alcohol
Mild withdrawal symptoms will usually begin six hours after a person who suffers from substance use disorder has their last drink. One of the first symptoms an individual will experience is cravings. During this time, they might also experience:
- Upset stomach
- Low appetite
After six hours, the individual can also have seizures if they have a long history of heavy alcohol use. Doctors consider seizures to be the most dangerous of acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
12-24 Hours of Detox from Alcohol
After 12 hours, people will begin to experience moderate withdrawal symptoms. Research has found 2-8% of people experience hallucinations as they go through alcohol withdrawal. They might see or hear things that aren’t physically there and feel scared, but doctors don’t consider this to be a serious complication. These symptoms will typically peak at 18-24 hours and decrease after four or five days for people going through minor withdrawal.
24-48 Hours of Detox from Alcohol
During this time, people will usually continue to experience mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms. The risk of experiencing a seizure peaks at this time and can remain high for several days. Seizures can be mild, but they can also lead to life-threatening conditions.
48-72 Hours of Detox from Alcohol
After 48 hours, people may experience more severe withdrawal symptoms. Some people may experience alcohol withdrawal delirium, also known as delirium tremens (DTs). This is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that can cause:
- Body tremors
- Agitation or irritability
- Extreme confusion or disorientation
- Rapid mood changes
- Increased heart rate
An increase in blood pressure can also occur and lead to chest pain. The risk for seizures decreases after 48 hours in most cases, but the risk of heart attack and stroke increases. DT has a high death rate, so it is usually monitored and treated in a hospital’s intensive care unit with supervision, sedating medications, and medical care.
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72+ Hours of Detox from Alcohol
People going through alcohol withdrawal will usually experience their worst symptoms during this time period. DTs may last two to three days, but can continue past eight days and can lead to death if a medical professional does not monitor and manage the symptoms. It is critical to seek medical attention if symptoms are severe. For severe cases, alcohol detox may be longer and ongoing treatment may be required for a 14-day or longer period. Each case is unique and requires constant care and progress review to evaluate the next stage of care. Where patients encounter severe symptoms medication and medical management and care to control any dangerous symptoms may be an ongoing process.
What is the Treatment for Alcohol Withdrawal?
Detox from alcohol is often considered the first stage of treatment. It will help you navigate the complicated process of alcohol withdrawal, but it doesn’t address patterns of thought and behavior that contribute to alcohol use. Various treatment approaches and settings can help provide the ongoing support necessary to maintain long-term sobriety after you complete detox.
Cravings are very common during detox from alcohol and can be challenging to overcome. This often leads to relapse. Constant medical care provided during inpatient treatment helps prevent relapse. Clinicians can provide necessary medication and medical expertise to lessen cravings and the effects of alcohol withdrawals.
Medication-Assisted Treatments (MAT) for alcohol use disorder and mental health disorders are commonly used in conjunction with one another. This includes the use of medications and other medical procedures. During your rehab, the staff from your treatment facility will help you identify what caused your addiction and teach you skills that will help you change your behavior patterns and challenge the negative thoughts that led to your addiction. Sometimes, the pressures and problems in your life lead you to rely on substances to help you forget about them momentarily.
Integrated Mental Health Care
Alcohol affects mental health, so people may use it to self-medicate undiagnosed disorders. Rehab centers typically provide mental health screenings, diagnoses, and integrated treatment for co-occurring disorders. In addition, holistic and therapeutic approaches are often used to treat recovering addicts with these conditions.
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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) can improve addicts’ behavior. CBT targets negative and maladaptive thought patterns as it promotes positive emotions and beliefs, while DBT helps clients address conflicting impulses so they can make healthy choices. Both therapies treat substance abuse and mental health disorders. Therapy also empowers clients to identify, avoid and mitigate cues that trigger drug cravings.
Individual and Group Counseling
Addiction and mental health counseling occur in both individual and group settings. One-on-one treatment sessions may address unresolved trauma, unconscious conflicts, and specific struggles, while group sessions often involve training in life skills, stress management, conflict resolution, and social connections. Group counseling also gives clients the chance to share their thoughts and experiences to develop social support, which is essential for lasting recovery.
Please, do not try to detox from alcohol on your own because the detox process can be painful and difficult without medical assistance. Your life is worth recovering for, and no matter how long it takes to detox from alcohol, you can get through this. If you or someone you know regularly exceeds these recommended daily limits or is experiencing effects of alcohol withdrawal, it is important to intervene early. We Level Up NJ has addiction specialists that are standing by to help.
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