What Is Alcohol Detox?

The word detox is commonly used today and often refers to clearing the body of toxins, but many people overlook its very specific medical meaning. Medical detox is the process of reducing or stopping the harm caused by the dependent use of alcohol or other substances in a controlled and medically supervised manner. 

The National Institute of Health in the U.S. defines alcohol detoxification as a period of medical treatment, usually including counselling, during which a person is helped to overcome physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. 

Alcohol detox uses medical intervention to support the body’s natural process of expelling all the toxins and waste products from long-term excessive alcohol consumption. The process takes time and several physiological and psychological changes are experienced. 

As the body is starved of alcohol, withdrawal symptoms will occur and these can range from mild to severe. In some extreme cases these can even be fatal. For this reason, it is highly recommended that alcohol detox should be carried out in a treatment setting. In these cases medical staff oversee the process, and are able to provide medication to manage symptoms as well as to provide counselling to help someone who suffers from alcohol dependence to safely complete the process. 

Alcohol detox is the prerequisite for any alcohol addiction treatment as this first step helps sufferers from alcohol addiction to prepare their mind and body to start the road to recovery.

Can Alcohol Detox Be Done at Home?

If a person is diagnosed with alcohol abuse or alcohol dependency, it is always recommended that no attempt of detoxification should be done at home. In cases of mild to moderate alcohol use disorder and isolation from communicable diseases, this process can be done at home but needs several safeguards to be set-up before doing so. Another reason self-alcohol detox is not recommended is that the chances of relapse or giving up halfway through are high.  This affects the mindset of the alcohol abuser when they next decide to stop drinking and may be discouraged by the failure. One of the main difficulties in alcohol detox is that the body is craving its usual alcohol intake and reacts when it is starved. These mild to severe reactions are called alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and with medical and counselling help, are much easier to manage.  

What Are the Typical Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms?

The sudden stopping of alcohol consumption can cause the body to react in many different ways such as hallucinations, seizures, and heart failures that could result in death. The other withdrawal symptoms can be excruciatingly uncomfortable and many who attempt self-detox resort to drinking again to ease the physical and mental pain. The common withdrawal symptoms for alcohol abuse may include:

  • Agitation or irritability
  • Alcoholic tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Delirium Tremens (DTs)
  • Depression
  • Excessive sweating
  • Extreme dehydration
  • Extreme tiredness or fatigue
  • Mood swings and emotional outbursts
  • Nausea
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Seizures
  • Shakiness
  • Vomiting

What Are the Timelines of Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms?

With alcohol detoxification, there are three stages of alcohol withdrawal symptoms and each is characterised by different symptoms.

  • The first stage of alcohol detox is classified by acute symptoms, usually occurring about eight hours after the last drink was consumed that include anxiety, insomnia, irritability, moodiness, nausea, vomiting, difficulty in focusing, and heart palpitations. These alcohol withdrawal symptoms typically last between one to four days.  
  • The second stage occurs between the second to third days after the last drink and has more serious symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Increased blood pressure and heart rate are common as well as extreme moodiness. It is at this stage that the person undergoing alcohol detox may experience a shock to the biological systems from alcohol deprivation.
  • The third stage of alcohol detox is where the alcohol withdrawal symptoms are severe and even life-threatening. This commonly occurs after three days from the last drink and can last for a week and in some cases even longer. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms experienced in this phase may include hallucinations, extreme confusion, high-levels of irritability, seizures, and tremors.

Addiction specialists and medical professionals strongly recommend that the detox process is performed under medical supervision.  Everyone has a different biological makeup and the history of alcohol abuse can vary but the key factors professionals look at are amounts, frequency and medical history. In general, the heavier the amount, the frequency and longer the alcohol abuse has been, the more acute the withdrawal symptoms are. With sudden cessation of the regular amount of alcohol that the body is used to the brain, liver and cardiac function can go into shock and this can be deadly.

How Long Does Alcohol Detox Take?

There are several factors that determine the period of the alcohol detox duration. These are the amount and frequency of alcohol consumed, if there were any other drugs used with drinking, any underlying issues, family history, as well as age, gender, and weight. The liver function also determines the length of withdrawal. If the alcohol addiction has severely damaged the organ or the functioning of the liver is compromised, it could take a much longer period to completely irradicate the alcohol out of the system. Typically, alcohol detoxification takes around a week on average however, this period typically involves managing the symptoms of withdrawal while the liver is getting rid of the toxins. Getting the body close to a semblance of its old self can take much longer. For the person who suffers alcohol abuse or alcohol use disorder to fully heal, it may take several weeks or months to fully heal the body and the mind from the habits associated with alcohol addiction.

What Does the Alcohol Detox Process Entail?

The actual detox process may vary depending on the severity of the alcohol addiction, the amount of alcohol consumed, presence of co-occurring disorders, allergies, and organ related diseases. The four main stages of detox are the early, peak, weakening and final stage.

The Early Stage – is when alcohol withdrawal naturally begins and can be as quick as two hours but generally around 6 to 24 hours after the last drink was consumed. Alcohol tends to be excreted from the body at approximately one unit per hour. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms tend to be mild during this stage and a low dose of medication may be administered whilst symptoms begin to appear. 

The Peak Stage – is the worst period for alcohol and other substance addictions. This typically happens from 24 to 48 hours once most of the alcohol has been expelled from the body. It is during this stage when the alcohol withdrawal symptoms are at their worst and medication and counselling is necessary to help manage them. Also, it is during this stage that relapse is most likely.

The Weakening Stage – is the period when the body is adapting back to a state of functioning without alcohol. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms start to subside and so the medication used to manage the symptoms are slowly tapered off and stopped. This is when most other forms of therapy for alcohol addiction treatment can begin. For some, this is the stage when any intense or severe alcohol withdrawal may happen including delirium tremens.

The Final Stage – is usually between 5 to 14 days after the detox begins and it is when it is done in a facility that provides residential treatment, the person can start treatment.

Medication Used for Withdrawal Treatment During Alcohol Detox

In most residential alcohol addiction treatment facilities and other detox centres with medical staff, certain medication is used to help manage the discomfort and difficulties of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Benzodiazepines, including Librium, Valium, and Ativan, are typically prescribed to manage seizures and other alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The reason Benzodiazepines are given is that they bind to the same receptors in the brain as alcohol. In this way they mimic the chemical footprint of alcohol and act to slow down the central nervous system, providing a calming sensation. Benzodiazepines also have a sedative effect and are useful for managing insomnia, muscle spasms, and anxiety. 

Vitamins B-1 (thiamine) and B-9 (folic acid) are also potential dietary supplements given to help the body cope with the cessation of alcohol intake. The team overseeing the detox process will monitor the person’s blood pressure, temperature and breathing to ensure that they are stable. Nutritional dietary needs and ample fluids to compensate for the dehydrating effects of alcohol are also given to the person undergoing alcohol detox. 

If you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol abuse and is looking to detox, it is crucial to detox under professional help.  This is because of the many extreme risks involved with detoxing alone at home. Contact us today for medically-supervised detox information and bespoke residential alcohol addiction treatment programs.

S.C. Tharan

August 8th, 2022

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