When is an alcohol detox required?

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Alcohol detox is required for you to begin your journey towards recovery. If you're struggling with alcohol addiction and want to lead a healthy life, you will have to complete the first phase of treatment, and that is detox. 

Alcohol detox is the body's natural way of getting rid of alcohol toxins. These toxins are a result of long-term alcohol consumption.

You can detox from alcohol at home, in a medical hospital, psychiatric unit, or at a specialized treatment centre. 

Many people find the detox process to be a bit overwhelming. This is mainly because of alcohol withdrawal symptoms that can vary from mild to severe. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are different for everyone. 

 The severity of the symptoms depends on the duration of substance abuse and the severity of the alcohol use disorder.

The presence of co-occurring disorders plus the number of times you've tried to quit also determine whether you should seek treatment. 

Should I detox at home? 

If you do some research online, you'll realize that detox at home is not advisable. The reason is that the withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening.  

When someone with alcohol dependence stops drinking, the brain goes into shock because it has built a tolerance for alcohol.  

Alcohol withdrawal results in symptoms such as anxiety, seizures, high blood pressure, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, rapid breathing, rapid heartbeat, respiratory problems, and so on.  

In severe cases, a person may experience hallucinations 12 to 48 hours after their last drink. 

Delirium tremens (DT) is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal symptom.  

This symptom manifests through confusion, hallucinations, cardiovascular collapse, agitation, aggression, or irritability, severe autonomic hyperactivity, tremors, or seizures.  

The symptoms of delirium tremens are different from alcohol withdrawal symptoms and occur at a different timeline. 

Delirium tremens usually affects people who have taken alcohol for more than 10 years.  

It is also common in those who take 4 to 5 pints ((1.8 to 2.4 litres) of wine, or 1 pint (1/2 litre) of "hard" alcohol, and 7 to 8 pints (3.3 to 3.8 litres) of beer every day for several months [1].  

Delirium tremens is rare, and not every person struggling with alcohol abuse will experience it. 

Other factors that put a person at risk of developing delirium tremens include[2]: 

  • Presence of a psychiatric disorder 
  • Other medications and supplements 
  • Lack of a healthy diet 
  • The number of previous alcohol withdrawal episodes 
  • Being of older age 
  • Previous experience with severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms, which include delirium tremens and other severe symptoms. 
  • Presence of other medical conditions. 

It is strongly recommended that any person at risk of developing DT go for medical attention before the detox. 

Prolonged alcohol abuse leads to tolerance and biological changes that lead to false homeostasis. Alcohol disrupts the central nervous system by depressing several neurotransmitters.  

When you drink, you experience issues such as inability to drive effectively, impaired vision, poor coordination, and impaired hearing.

You may also get reactions such as depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, plus many other symptoms.  

In the long term, heavy drinking can lead to serious conditions such as dementia, neuropathy, plus many other conditions. Alcohol also disrupts the digestive system and other organs. 

The goal of the detox process is to help the body of the patient restore its natural balance. This process is delicate, and some people have tried to detox at home only to end up relapsing.  

When one relapses, they are likely to drink more as the body attempts to compensate for the time you had without the drink. 

Detox at a treatment facility is the best approach. This is because you get 24/7 medical supervision as you're being treated during the alcohol withdrawal process.  

You also get professional treatment advice that will set you on a path to success in the recovery process. 

Why get medical help for alcohol detox? 

Getting medical help for alcohol detox helps ease the pain, discomfort, and symptoms from alcohol withdrawal. The withdrawal symptoms set in from your last drink, and they occur because the brain is forced to change. 

When you go for addiction treatment, the medical professionals will administer medications such as Benziodiopenes, Naltrexone, Acamprosate, Disulfiram, plus other types of medications.  

These medications help make detox from alcohol more comfortable. Some of the medicines mimic the effect of alcohol in the body, which reduces the temptation to abandon the alcohol detox. 

Medical detox ensures that you safely detox. You can get this service in an inpatient or outpatient setting.

Your medical practitioner will provide medical advice and counselling to help you decide which treatment programme is ideal for you.  

Seeking treatment at an addiction facility also comes with benefits such as: 

  • Peer support 
  • Family support 
  • Therapeutic intervention 
  • Aftercare 
  • A safe and structured place to detox 
  • Medical stabilisation 
  • Relapse prevention 

The Substance Abuse and Mental health services administration recommend that medication-assisted treatment be provided for detox in combination with counselling and behavioural therapies [3]. 

It is up to you to decide whether you want to detox at home, or you'll enter an addiction treatment facility. Still, it is highly recommended that you go for detox at a rehab facility or medical facility. 

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What to expect from an alcohol detox?

Three main steps take place during alcohol detox.  

They include: 

a). Intake: The medical provider will conduct a comprehensive patient assessment to understand their needs. 

b). Medication: Medical treatment for alcohol addiction almost always entails the use of medication. This medication eases the withdrawal symptoms. They also help manage other co-occurring conditions. 

c). Stabilisation: The patient goes through a series of medical and psychological therapies to help them find balance in their mind and body. 

d). Preparing the patient for rehab. Whereas detox helps the body get rid of toxins, it does not address the underlying factors that lead to substance abuse.  

A professional detox centre would help prepare patients for the next ideal phase of rehab to aid the person in the recovery journey. The next phase may be short-term residential treatment, long-term rehab, or outpatient care. 

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a common complication in alcohol use disorder (AUD). Some facilities will only begin to administer medication when they notice the syndrome.

Others use a front-loading tactic where they begin to administer the medication immediately. 

During the process, most patients experience alcohol detox symptoms. The symptoms appear during the two phases of alcohol detox.  

They include: 

Acute withdrawal symptoms in phase 1 

The most severe alcohol detox symptoms appear at this phase.  

They include: 

  • Nausea 
  • Anxiety 
  • Vomiting 
  • Insomnia 
  • Excessive sweating 
  • Shakiness 
  • Heart failure 
  • Hypertension 
  • Convulsions 
  • Whole-body tremor 
  • Hallucinations 

Alcohol detox symptoms during early abstinence 

The second phase of the detox process occurs over months as the brain restores its normal functioning.

This is referred to as post-acute withdrawal symptoms and includes signs such as insomnia, lack of appetite, depression, mood swings, anxiety, restlessness. 

When you detox at a treatment facility, a medical professional may administer medication. The aim of the medication is to help minimise physiological disruptions.

Medications such as Librium, Valium, and Benzodiazepines also help manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms such as seizures. 

Detox is the first phase of treatment. It can last about 5 to 7 days, depending on an individual and their needs.

Once the detox is complete, the patient will be advised to continue with addiction treatment by engaging in therapies, 12-steps, and other activities to help them in their recovery journey. 

How effective is alcohol detox? 

When you stop drinking suddenly, the alcohol cravings and withdrawal symptoms can prove to be unbearable. The best approach is to take less alcohol slowly.  

Most people try to quit cold turkey, and may end up indulging in heavy drinking as they are unable to cope with the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.  

When you seek detox at a specific addiction treatment facility, the medical team minimises your withdrawal symptoms.  

They offer you medication that will help you stabilise and prevent the harmful effects of withdrawal. This procedure is what makes alcohol detox at a treatment centre more effective than at-home detox. 

A study conducted by researchers Brian Eastwood, Amy Peacock and others shows that 59% of the patients who successfully completed the treatment programme had better treatment outcomes [4]. 

Those with mild to moderate alcohol addiction can opt for at-home detox.  

You can get a home detox kit to help you manage the withdrawal symptoms. The kit usually contains sedatives, vitamins, and other medications.

You will experience mild symptoms, but if you can manage the symptoms, you'll be able to complete detox within 5 to 7 days. 

Some treatment providers will provide you with a specialist addictions doctor to visit you at home and conduct a full medical evaluation.

Still, if you opt for this approach, you need to attend therapy to learn coping strategies that will help you deal with the alcohol cravings. 

Are you cured after completing a detox? 

You are not cured after completing detox. What happens is that detoxification rids the body of alcohol toxins.

Ask any treatment provider, and they'll advise you to proceed with other addiction treatment services if you want to achieve a sober life. 

If you have completed detox at a medical centre, you could seek outpatient services. For instance, you could join a support group such as the AA or SMART recovery.  

If you don't know where to begin after detox, you could go to the UK rehab or Alcohol Rehab (UK) sites to get started. Alternatively, the NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) launched an online treatment navigator that helps you find available treatment options near you.  

Most of the addiction treatment centres have toll free numbers listed on their websites. Also, most facilities have a certified addiction professional waiting for your call to advise you on the next steps you need to take to stay sober. 

If you or your loved one seek assistance for addiction treatment, you can reach out to a specific treatment provider or a certified addiction counsellor.  

Your GP can also offer you trustworthy health information on where you should go for detox, plus available support groups near you after you detox. 

Conclusion 

Detox is the first phase in alcohol addiction treatment. Anyone tired of heavy drinking or anyone who quit drinking goes into detox.  

Detoxification helps the body get rid of the alcohol toxins that build up from drinking. This process results in alcohol withdrawal symptoms that range from mild to severe symptoms. 

Those who drink alcohol and want to lead a sober life are encouraged to seek clinical management of the withdrawal symptoms. Addiction treatment sets the path to successful long-term recovery. 

Abbeycare Pricing Bot

Last Updated: October 27, 2021

About the author

Peter Szczepanski

Peter has been on the GPhC register for 29 years. He holds a Clinical Diploma in Advanced Clinical Practice and he is a Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Misuse for Abbeycare Gloucester and works as the Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Use in Worcestershire. Find Peter on Respiratory Academy, Aston University graduates, University of Birmingham, Q, Pharmaceutical Journal, the Dudley Pharmaceutical Committee, Dudley Council, Twitter, and LinkedIn.