Why Is Medical Supervision Important During Alcohol Detox?

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Alcohol detox is a dangerous process that involves a series of withdrawal symptoms manifested in physical and mental symptoms that ranges from painful discomforts to life-threatening conditions such as Delirium Tremens.

Going from acute intoxication to a state of complete wean-off sends the brain into overdrive craving for its presence to function hence the occurrences of withdrawal symptoms.

Though these symptoms vary, there’s no way to predict the intensity of its manifestation thus medical supervision is highly recommended to ensure that proper medical support, equipment, medication, and experts are available when the need arises.

Alcohol detoxification is considered the most dangerous detox because it alters the way our central nervous system functions or the powerhouse of our physiological activities.

Prolonged alcoholism entrenches every nook and cranny of our brain and affects its function from hormone production, down to over-release of neurotransmitters due to alcohol influence.

Now, taking the excitatory factor on your system, your brain goes into shock and panics because with alcohol dependency, it cannot function in its pseudo normal state without a constant supply of alcohol.

During alcohol detox, you let your body go into an abrupt reset allowing your body to use, process and excrete the remaining alcohol content.

Once all traces of alcohol get flushed out, this is where withdrawal symptoms reach their peak where the body craves for its absence and tries to gradually adjust.

However, the adjustment phase takes time and while the body transitions back to its natural normal state, you will experience physical and mental symptoms.

Withdrawal symptoms vary on each person depending on several factors including drinking history, co-occurring conditions, current mental and physical health, age, gender, etc.

Some may experience mild tolerable discomforts but for others, it may involve life-threatening symptoms that can also trigger life-long complications.

Taking chances and downplaying withdrawal symptoms may lead to irreversible and fatal consequences.

Withdrawal symptoms may include but not limited to:

  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite
  • Trembling and tremors
  • Increased heart rate, palpitations and elevated blood pressure
  • Nightmares and insomnia
  • Selective memory loss and stupor
  • Augmented sensitivity to sound and light
  • Hearing and visual delusions
  • Mood swings and paranoia
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Excessive sweating
  • Panic attacks
  • Grand mal seizures
  • Delirium tremens

For people with prolonged chronic alcoholism and previous history of relapsed detox attempts, the symptoms are beyond tolerable and will require medical intervention and close monitoring to ensure safety.

The severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can cause serious health risks which include:

  • Heart enlargement
  • Susceptibility to infections
  • Inflammation of pancreas
  • General brain damage
  • Low blood sugar
  • Gastrointestinal haemorrhage
  • Liver failure

Research studies show that alcohol directly causes 7 forms of cancer and affects the liver, heart, and pancreas by disrupting brain functions and interfering with its natural structure.

Chances are that chronic alcoholics may have poor health due to prolonged alcoholism and severe withdrawal symptoms may aggravate their current health situation.

Thus close medical supervision is highly recommended to manage potential complications, minimize the crippling pain and discomfort, and keep your journey safe in general.

What does medically supervised alcohol detox mean?

Medically supervised alcohol detox is a set of medically inclined interventions used in managing acute intoxication, withdrawal symptoms, and complications that may occur during the detox duration.

It is done under the care of physicians, nurses, therapists, dieticians, and other health care personnel who work together in making your alcohol detox journey as safe and comfortable as possible.

This is done in a safe environment such as an addiction treatment centre where all the necessary equipment, prescription, supplementary support, and team of health experts are available to render assistance at all times.

They closely monitor your progress as well as the possibility of complications and onset of life-threatening symptoms such as Delirium Tremens.

A medically supervised detox is a primary step and a prerequisite for a treatment programme aimed towards long-term recovery and complete sobriety.

The reasoning behind alcohol detox is simple; it initially cuts your dependence on alcohol by removing it from your daily routine.

It also allows the natural excretory and detoxification function of your system to flush out all the remaining traces of alcohol acquired during your most recent drinking spree.

However, due to prolonged exposure to alcohol, your body adapted to the constant presence of alcohol in your body and has created a “fake normalcy”.

Secreting excitatory hormones and over-production of neurotransmitters are a few of the numerous alterations that alcohol does to your body.

And when that normalcy is abruptly interfered with by alcohol detox, your body will crave the presence of alcohol and miss its effects making it unable to function the way it used to.

The body then goes into overdrive unable to perform its functions while trying to shift back to its normal state and functioning.

The instantaneous loss of alcohol supply in the body results in withdrawal symptoms which range from mild and tolerable to cripplingly painful and life-threatening.

The problem is, there's no way to predict the level of discomfort that you'll experience during the process and even if your markers can detect your possibility of going through severe symptoms, it's still inconclusive.

In alcohol detox, there’s no certainty. Everything can turn into its worst in a second.

That's why medical supervision is highly necessary to keep you safe, monitor and stabilize your vitals, and immediately respond to life-threatening situations.

Alcohol is deemed to be the most dangerous substance because it alters the functioning of the brain and penetrates to its every nook and crannies so you can only imagine its effects once it’s eliminated from your daily routine.

Aside from being the safest detox approach, medically supervised detox promotes individualized services making sure that you’ll get a personally tailored approach that fits with your needs, comfortability, and designed according to your current health status, medical and drinking history.

Instead of using a one size fits all formula, addressing your needs and body requirements works more effectively.

Medical supervision is also the best option for people with previous history of alcohol detox attempts but happened to relapsed or failed to complete the detox process.

Withdrawal symptoms are more severe on your next alcohol detox compared to your previous experience because your body has adapted and built a certain level of tolerance.

This makes the detox process more challenging resulting in severe withdrawal symptoms thus medical supervision and intervention are required to help you safely get through the process.

What are the benefits of a medically supervised alcohol detox?

The best benefit of medically supervised alcohol detox is it’s the safest way to detox from alcohol.

It also offers a structured individualized service that suits best with the patient's need ensuring that the risks are minimized, complications are effectively prevented from day one.

Co-occurring conditions are mitigated to avoid potential trigger or aggravation, and appropriate prescription, supplements, and therapeutic support are provided to make your experience as comfortable as possible.

And in case complications arise, a 24/7 standby team of medical experts is available to respond to emergencies.

Medically supervised alcohol detox also offers you help from experienced therapists that are available to provide psychiatric support to help you get going.

They provide strategies on how to resist urges and cravings and encouragement to strengthen the drive to continue with the treatment programme.

You're sure that you get all the support you need to help you on your alcohol detox journey.

Here is a detailed explanation of the benefits of a medically supervised alcohol detox and why it’s recommended.

1. Health and safety is prioritised

The top reason why medical supervision is important during alcohol detox especially to people with chronic drinking history, previous detox history, comorbidity, and mental health issues is that it is the safest option.

All possible support is given to alleviate discomforts, prevent complications, and address health conditions making your experience as comfortable as it could be.

You’re sure that your vitals and body responses are closely monitored 24/7 to ensure that the medical team is updated on your progress and is one step ahead before complication and sudden turn of events occurs.

It is also a life-saving option because it evaluates your physical and mental health even before administering the detox to detect potential triggers that may aggravate your condition.

Alcohol detox brings forth several adverse effects but with early detection and early administration of medical treatment, withdrawal symptoms-related emergencies can be prevented.

2. Mental condition is addressed and psychological support is provided

The stability of your mental health increases the effectiveness of alcohol detox thus it is important to take care of your mental state and address psychological conditions while detoxifying.

In medically supervised detox, holistic care and recovery programmes are provided to detoxify your physical and mental aspects.

Dual diagnosis treatment is administered with the help of collaborative expertise from therapists, physicians, counsellors, and therapy sessions are available to help manage your mental health issues.

3. Medical intervention to mitigate withdrawal symptoms is available

In medically supervised detox, you get taken care of by experienced healthcare experts who are equipped with knowledge and expertise in handling and mitigating expected withdrawal symptoms.

They exert all possible interventions to make the whole process as comfortable and non-traumatizing as possible as it helps improve your recovery.

4. Medication, treatment, and dedicated medical staff is ready 24/7

Medications are prescribed and treatments are administered by professionally qualified healthcare experts.

Thus, you’re confident that you'll get the proper and effective treatment to relieve the pain of withdrawal symptoms and mitigate chemical imbalance in the system.

Aside from comprehensive monitoring, you also get dietary support to ensure that you are feeding your body with the right nutrients while on detox.

5. You are not alone on your journey

In medically supervised detox, you don't have to live with the stigma involved in alcoholism and you don't have to be afraid or ashamed of your vulnerability.

You’ll get the privacy away from the judgemental world and peaceful environment you need without sacrificing comfort and safety.

You’ll be exposed to an environment where people understand and empathize with your struggles and support your decision in breaking free from alcohol dependency.

6. Safe, closed, and cleansing conducive environment

In medically supervised detox, you're confined in a closed and safe environment that's conducive for your detox journey to let you focus on your recovery.

Treatment facilities offer restricted access to alcohol thus minimizing triggers and temptation to cave into cravings and urges. Activities are also provided to improve your physical and mental health.

7. Rehab treatment and aftercare 

Detox is just a primary stage towards a more comprehensive rehabilitation and treatment programme and is not an alcoholism treatment.

Thus it is essential that after completing the alcohol detox stage, the patient should continue with the treatment process to secure long-term sobriety and recovery.

In medically supervised detox, you are provided with a rehab treatment programme and aftercare to help you adapt to triggers and stressors that might compel you to relapse.

As part of aftercare support, medical follow-ups are scheduled and individual or peer counselling is available to help you get back on your feet and resume your old pre-alcoholic self.

Why is alcohol withdrawal dangerous without supervision?

Alcohol withdrawal is dangerous without medical supervision because its withdrawal symptoms are profound and can trigger life-threatening conditions.

These include Delirium Tremens, psychosis, Grand mal seizures, cardiac events, kidney malfunction, liver failure, and general brain damage which can cause lifelong damage to your body or in the worst case, death. 

Among the addictive substances, alcohol is the most dangerous substance to detox because its effects are instantaneous and it immediately alters your body’s natural functioning as soon as it reaches your bloodstream.

For a substance that interferes with every brain function and major organs’ performance, going cold turkey will cause your body to go into shock, unable to function without its influence.

And in an attempt to cope up with its absence, it will send faulty signals to the body which results in withdrawal symptoms.

The physical effects of alcohol detox may also aggravate pre-existing conditions and comorbidities.

It is highly dangerous for people with co-occurring physical conditions to undergo unsupervised detox because there are withdrawal symptoms that can trigger complications.

And given the rate of their current health condition, their body may not be able to survive the exhausting and demanding chemical changes in the body when left unaided with medical intervention, medication, and monitoring.

People who have a previous history of failed attempts at alcohol detox are also at high risk of life-threatening thus medical supervision is necessary to ensure safety and success.

During failed detox, your body builds some sort of alcohol tolerance and your brain’s dependency on alcohol increases making the withdrawal symptoms more severe the next time you undergo alcohol detox.

With medically supervised detox, you undergo pre-admission screening and evaluation that digs in your drinking and detox history, physical and mental conditions, and other factors that may interfere or aggravate your withdrawal symptoms.

Let's delve further into the dangers of alcohol detox without medical supervision.

1. Withdrawal symptoms

The severity of your withdrawal symptoms varies depending on so many factors but your drinking history and level of alcohol dependency play a huge role.

However, there’s no way to predict what symptoms you’re going to experience and what complications and health emergencies may arise within the duration of your detox.

The pre-admission screening and evaluation can help identify the possibilities but there’s no guarantee that it will go according to plan because your physiological processes are complex.

Without professional and medical intervention, you don't get the proper information on what to expect, how to deal with it, and what's worse is that you don't get access to proper medications to ease your pain and discomforts.

No counsellor to ask for encouragement and advice, no medical team to report your complaints on pain, no nurses to help you cope up with the discomforts, no dietician to help you feed and strengthen your body with the right nutrients, and no standby medical team to respond when medical emergencies arise.

Aside from demanding physical symptoms, there are also mental symptoms in withdrawal including anxiety, depression, and irritability.

You will need the help of an experienced therapist to help you stabilize your mental health but without medical supervision, you’ll be battling alone with no effective help available.

2. Increased chances of relapse

The crippling pain and discomforts can get the best of you and affect your drive, and determination resulting in relapse.

You already have poor resistance to alcohol and without medical support, you are likely to fall back into alcohol wanting to end your suffering the easier way.

In medically supervised detox, medications and supplements are provided to make you feel as comfortable as possible. By removing or minimizing the discomforts, your chance of relapse gets slimmer each day.

3. Delirium tremens

Delirium Tremens or DT is one of the most serious and life-threatening withdrawal symptoms involved in alcohol detox.

Reports claim that 1 out of 20 people who develop DT die, making it a medical emergency so once you or your loved one experiences signs and symptoms of DT, seek medical help ASAP.

It usually manifests 2 days after your last drink up to your 7th day of detox and malnourished individuals are more likely to experience DT.

Delirium Tremens is often characterized by restlessness, confusion, elevated temperature, auditory hallucinations, and seizures and when left unmitigated, it can quickly progress to cardiac arrest and death.

What is the process of a medically supervised alcohol detox?

Medically supervised alcohol detox is a clinically supervised programme that conforms with 3 essential processes set by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services or SAMHS.

It includes evaluation, stabilization, and Transitioning into Rehabilitation Treatment programmes.

Alcohol detox serves as the tip of a longer treatment to ensure long-term sobriety and recovery that will help you cope up with potential triggers and stressors and eases your transition from a confined secured environment into the real world that’s full of temptation.

Alcohol detox, being the primary step of your sobriety journey, cuts your alcohol dependence, abruptly stops your routine alcohol consumption, and ceases the constant supply of alcohol in your body.

This allows your system to detoxify, flushing the remaining traces of alcohol acquired from your last drink.

Imbibing the body with copious amounts of alcohol for a prolonged period pushes your brain to build alcohol dependence.

Once alcohol detox starts, your brain will crave for its presence to continue with its accustomed function.

Its absence will send the excess neurons into haywire not knowing how to deal with its absence and this results in the manifestation of withdrawal symptoms. 

The severity of these symptoms varies on a personal basis and is reliant on different factors.

To prevent complications, medically supervised alcohol detox is recommended wherein medication, therapy, supplements, proper diet, and medical intervention is available along with 24/7 close monitoring to ensure safety, prevent, and address life-threatening emergencies.

Please note that home detox in the UK is treated differently. 

1. Evaluation

Evaluation is a pre-admission screening protocol wherein necessary data are gathered to determine your current physical and mental condition, drinking scope and history, substance abuse, pre-existing health and mental conditions, and basic personal information.

This is done to ensure that you will receive proper medications and a personally tailored alcohol detox plan.

Treatment professionals may extract information which includes:

  • Blood test
  • Evaluation of any pre-existing mental and physical condition
  • Screening of your social situation and arrangement
  • Drinking History
  • Substance Abuse
  • General physical and psychological assessment
  • Risk assessment of potential withdrawal symptoms and the required medical attention needed

2. Stabilization

The detox process or stabilization stage starts as soon as evaluation has been done.

It can last between 5-10 days depending on certain factors and the length of time is decided by the treatment and healthcare professionals handling your case.

In this stage, medical and psychosocial support is rendered to help you get through acute intoxication and crippling withdrawal symptoms.

This stage involves: 

  • Medication to help alleviate withdrawal symptoms and promote comfort
  • Healthy diet, proper nutrition, and supplements
  • Educating you with the expected withdrawal symptoms
  • Preparing you for treatment and recovery
  • Arranging your family and friends support if you prefer to have them involved

3. Transition into rehabilitation treatment programme

After completion of your alcohol detox programme, you will be encouraged to continue with the rehab treatment programme to ensure long-term recovery and empower you with proper strategies to manage stressors and triggers.

Don't put your life at risk when you’re trying to be better and be sober. Seek for medically supervised detox where you’ll get optimum support, premier health equipment, and effective medications.

Moreover, an experienced medical team is available to help you get through your battle against alcohol dependency. Call us and let us work together on your sobriety journey.

About the author

Laura Morris

Laura Morris is an experienced clinical practitioner and CQC Registered Manager with over twenty years experience, over ten of which have been as an Independent Nurse Prescriber.

She has held a number of senior leadership roles in the substance use and mental health sector in the NHS, the prison service and in leading social enterprises in the field.

Last Updated: November 6, 2023